The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano

When French author Patrick Modiano won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, there was quite a flurry in the media, as many people had neither heard of him or read his work – and I confess I fall into that category! However, I’m always keen to widen my horizons when it comes to literature, and so I was very pleased to pick up a copy of his book “The Search Warrant” on one of my recent trips to Foyles.

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The book’s original French title is “Dora Bruder”, the name of the character who occupies much of the narrative. The author spots a missing ad in an old copy of Paris Soir from 1941, stating that a 15-year-old girl called by that name has gone missing. This was in the middle of the Nazi occupation of France and the girl had run away from her convent school in a freezing cold December, and the author, familiar with the area, begins to investigate, trying to find out about Dora and her life and what happened to her. Interspersed with this narrative are vignettes from his life, points where he might have intersected with Dora and people who knew her. The trail widens a little to take in the lives of others living under the Nazis and although the author finds out much about Dora and her fate, he will never know everything.

A short description like that really doesn’t do justice to this slim book, however. Modiano’s writing is superb, slipping between several different points in time, and capturing the harshness and uncertainty of life under Nazi occupation. For of course Dora was Jewish, and therefore her fate becomes somewhat inevitable. In deceptively simple prose, Modiano not only tells Dora’s story but also that of many others who suffered and died until you realise he’s actually making a big point about the brutality and arbitrary horror of the Nazi regime.

I was intrigued, too, to find myself reading another book billed as fiction where it was unclear as to whether the author/narrator is Modiano or a fictional author standing between the author and the reader. I believe that many of Modiano’s fictions have this effect, of the blending of real and imaginary, and an interesting foreword to another collection of his stories quoted him as saying that his novels are “a kind of autobiography, but one that is dreamed-up or imaginary. Even the photographs of my parents have become portraits of imaginary characters.”

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I find this fascinating, particularly as parts of TSW explore Modiano’s somewhat troubled relationship with his father, who also had problems under Nazi occupation. It may be that Modiano uses his fictions to work out parts of his past, but nevertheless the book is gripping, with its exploration of the past and its speculation on how lives intersect. The final impact of the book is powerful with the realisation of just how many Parisians were affected by the occupation and also how it still seems to touch modern generations. I often have the feeling that the French people are still haunted by the war and the occupation, and certainly it does seem to inform a lot of their modern fiction.

This was a very thought-provoking read, and one I’ve kept returning to long after finishing it. On the strength of this book, I can certainly see why Modiano won the Nobel, and I’ll be interested in reading more of his work.

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