So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood is Patrick Modiano's first publication since 2014 when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. Modiano specializes in mystery novels, but not the kind that involve crime and murder, but ones where human beings search for their identity and are engaged in solving puzzles from their past. In this book, the principal character, Jean Daragane, writer and recluse, has purposely built a life of seclusion away from the Parisian hustle and bustle. He doesn't see many people, rarely goes out, and spends his time in a solitary world of his own. Then one day he comes in contact with two individuals, Gilles Ottolini and Chantal Grippay, who in triggering memories from his past lead him to search for his own roots.
A few words about the writer Patrick Modiano is in order. Modiano has been called a “psychogeographic” writer. Psychogeography is defined as "a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities... just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape" (Joseph Hunt, "A New Way of Walking"). So here we come across Daragane, a Parisian, roaming around in the neighborhoods of Paris in search of his identity. He recalls his childhood days when he lived here and tries to connect many unsolved memories that emanate from two events that trigger his journey—the loss of his address book and a phone call.
Jean Daragane had lost the address book a month ago at the train station, or on a train that was taking him to the Cote d'Azur. He gets a call from Gilles who found the notebook and wanted to give it to Jean in person. They arrange to get together at a café, where Jean also meets Chantal, Gilles' companion and a woman who eventually renews Jean's interest in two characters who played significant roles in his childhood: a woman named Annie Astrand and her associate Guy Torsel. Gilles asks Jean about Guy Torsel, a name found in his phonebook, and their conversation at the café motivates Jean to find his birth mother, from whom he was separated as a child and his foster mother, Annie Astrand.
The tale of Daragane's fascinating self-discovery is brilliantly translated by Euan Cameron. The author throws his reader a challenge, so to speak. Jean starts to follow the lead given by Gilles Ottolini, and like a well-honed detective, tries to find the individuals that Ottolini is interested in as well as of those who are connected to his childhood, the early years and the mysterious figure of Roger Vincent. The title of the book came from an advice he received from Annie when he was five or six years old. She had given him a note and a hand-drawn map and had written on the note that the map was for him to carry along, “So you don't get lost in the neighborhood”.
At one level So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood is a mystery novel, a detective story. At another level, it is about Jean himself who was separated from his mother and raised by Annie. In his search for his roots, he looks for people who knew him as a child.
Charles R. Larson, Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, Washington, in a review of Modiano's book calls it a “puzzling but deeply satisfying novel.” In his review Larson further writes, “The unfolding of the past in So You Don't Get Lost in the Neighborhood is one of the most remarkable accounts of sleuthing, of unburying painful events from the past, that I can ever remember reading.” Indeed Daragane unearths the past lives of those around him. Annie Astrand, for one, turns out to be an enigmatic character.
My own puzzlement over Annie's second disappearance is shared by Larson, but that is a signature feature of Modiano, whose narrative leaves a few questions up in the air, and who appears to be a teaser or a writer who wants to engage readers in finding their own conclusion about the questions he raises. For example, we never learn who Annie Astrand is. Daragane says, “She meant a great deal to me.” We learn that she was in prison but we never find out why. But, Modiano offers us a clue which could possibly explain a lot of the puzzles in the book: “In the end, we forget the details of our lives that embarrass us or are too painful.”
When Daragane meets Annie, he “would have preferred her to talk about her own life but she seemed not to want to do so.” Throughout the novel, we suspect one or possibly two murders taking place, but Modiano only hints at them. An overarching puzzle: Why did Jean Daragane's mother leave him in Annie's care? And then, another question: did Jean and Annie have an affair after they reconnect fifteen years later even though Annie was many years older than him and was his nanny?
Modiano specializes in interpretation of memory and is conversant with modern research which confirms that memory is selective and people forget the unpleasant things. His Nobel Prize citation recognizes this talent to give him credit “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation.” His foray into psycho-analysis also gives us another important theory: our memory plays an important role in the formation of our identity, i.e., who we think we are.
A case in point is the conversation between Jean and Annie when they meet. Anne does not remember going to the restaurant or the boarding school but he does. Annie asks him,
“So, you don't remember Colette?”
“Yes . . . of course,” said Daragane. “You knew each other at boarding school.”
She looked at him in surprise.
“How did you know?”
“One afternoon, you took me to visit your old boarding school.”
“Are you sure? I have no memory of it.”
“It was on the other side of Montmorency forest.”
“I never took you there with Colette ...”
He did not want to contradict her. He might find explanations in the book that the doctor had inscribed to him, that little book with white covers about forgetfulness.
Modiano is an interpreter of the psyche and the ways of the mind. Memory and its role in our personality play out in his novels. Daragane is searching for his roots, but according to Modiano, “However much he racked his memory, he had not the slightest recollection of what in present-day language is known as 'a home of one's own.'” After finishing the book I kept on wondering. In his own poetic way, Modiano seems to give us a clue though. As he puts it:
“… children never ask themselves any questions. Many years afterwards, we attempt to solve puzzles that were not mysteries at the time and we try to decipher half-obliterated letters from a language that is too old and whose alphabet we don't even know.”
Abdullah Shibli lives and works in Boston, USA.