Book Of The Month

Laying bare the horrors of France

Nobel Prize winner Patrick Modiano explores the personal and collective memory and identity of his home country

French author Patrick Modiano's The Occupation Trilogy combines a fresh translation of his 1967 literary debut, La Place d'Etoile, with two short stories, The Night Watch (1969) and Ring Roads (1972).
French author Patrick Modiano's The Occupation Trilogy combines a fresh translation of his 1967 literary debut, La Place d'Etoile, with two short stories, The Night Watch (1969) and Ring Roads (1972). PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Buried beneath the labyrinth of rues winding through Paris in French author Patrick Modiano's three novellas, hidden under his obscure, at times frustratingly dense prose, is the conviction that every facet of France's history, however difficult and ugly, must be told.

It is often said that writers are the conscience of a nation, and Modiano, 70, was honoured with the Nobel Prize for Literature last year, for a lifetime of work exploring both personal and collective loss, memory and identity in his home country.

The win lifted Modiano from relative obscurity in the Anglophone world, and translation of his works is under way - The Occupation Trilogy combines a fresh translation of his 1967 literary debut, La Place d'Etoile, with two short stories, The Night Watch (1969) and Ring Roads (1972).

Each story, in its own way, uncovers the horrors of the pro- Nazi Vichy regime in France from 1940 to 1942. La Place d'Etoile refers both to the area near the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, as well as the Star of David that Jews were forced to wear during the Occupation.

It is a picaresque story about the life of Raphael Schlemilovitch, a depraved and self-loathing Jew who cavorts with those on the lowest rungs of society, which includes Adolf Hitler and his wife, Eva Braun.



    By Patrick Modiano, translated from French by Frank Wynne

    Bloomsbury/Hardcover/336 pages/$48.62 from Books Kinokuniya/4 stars

"Yes, through my millions and my orgies, I personally preside over the International Jewish Conspiracy. Yes the Second World War was directly triggered by me," he declares at one point.

The absurdist narrative hurtles through his life from the city to the countryside, as he assaults his classmates at a lycee in Bordeaux and eventually becomes seduced by a Jewish aristocrat into white sex slave trading.

There are autobiographical shades to the story.

The unscrupulous Raphael is a parallel to the author's father, Alberto, a Jewish racketeer who hid his identity to evade capture and had ties to the organised crime gangs then. His mother, Louisa, was a Flemish actress.

The story works as a fiery and satirical indictment of the moral failings of the French state in acquiescing to their occupiers' fanatical persecution of the Jews.

But Modiano's ornate style inhibits reading. He penned the work at the age of 22, and his pretentiousness and self-consciousness show in the prose, a relentless, disorienting stream-of-consciousness that will give readers literary whiplash. It also overflows with references contemporary to that era, which can be hard to decipher.

The second story, The Night Watch, is more ambiguous in content and tone. It follows a French spy who is recruited as a double agent by the Gestapo to infiltrate a Resistance cell.

Wandering the streets and alleys of Paris, Modiano's unnamed protagonist flits from scene to scene with no clear transitions, reminiscent of the jump cuts deployed in the French New Wave cinema which came about during the same period.

And just like how the narrator's identity is in constant flux as he doubles back and forth between both camps, the narrative shifts forward in time, then back, with ruptures in between, imbuing the tale with a nightmarish ambience. It also speaks of the mutability of history and the French collective memory, especially in remembering its shameful past.

Modiano also dismantles Paris' romanticised reputation as the City of Light, instead portraying it as "sinking into darkness", a stark, silent city abandoned by its denizens to the invaders and crooks. As the narrator drives along, he observes: "The city suddenly seems to crumple."

The last story of the lot, Ring Roads, is the true gem. It sees Modiano writing at a more tempered pace - this time, the protagonist, a man named Serge Alexandre, tails his estranged Jewish father to a small town and attempts to rescue him from his life of servitude to unsavoury local ruffians.

This is complicated by the fact that Serge's father may have tried to push him in front of a train when he was a child - a memory fuzzy in his mind.

It is a testament to Modiano's finesse that even the vignettes of his villains' lives, as penned by Serge, are simultaneously droll, haunting and poignant.

One such tale is that of the prostitute Sylviane Qumphe, a working-class girl with a yen for travel, who is pimped out by a ticket inspector to train passengers: "She remembered a Paris-Zurich trip during which she entertained eight men in succession in her single sleeper carriage."

It is also the story most concerned with the act of searching, which recurs in the book. Serge's quest is not merely about finding his father, but also an attempt to relive and understand the fragments of his present self.

This, Modiano seems to suggest, is the way forward for France, which remains troubled by anti-Semitism and racial tensions today. The Occupation Trilogy is a must-read for those who desire a nuanced insider understanding of the fraught, humiliating past of a world superpower.

If you like this, read: When Paris Went Dark: The City Of Light Under German Occupation by Ronald C. Rosbottom (Little, Brown And Company/Paperback/480 pages/ $24.95/Books Kinokuniya), a rigorously researched and thorough account of the Nazi occupation of Paris, backed up by interviews, letters, diary entries, photographs and flyers.



    By Viet Thanh Nguyen

    Grove Press/Paperback/384 pages/From $26.82/Major bookstores/4.5 stars

Vietnamese-born American writer Viet Thanh Nguyen's debut novel on the Vietnam War is a sorely needed, intelligent novel about the complexities of war, beliefs and ideology through the eyes of a complex protagonist.

It fills the gap in Vietnam war literature written from a European or American point of view with a memorable central character: a Vietnamese spy who provides perspectives from both the pro-American South Vietnamese army and the Communist Vietcong.

The unnamed narrator is ostensibly a trusted captain to the general of the South Vietnamese army, but is in fact an undercover spy for the Vietcong.

He flees war-torn Saigon for Los Angeles, where he becomes a consultant of a Hollywood film, clearly based on the movie Apocalypse Now, in an attempt to help improve representations of the Vietnamese.

Nguyen, author of an academic book Race And Resistance, is a keen observer of American culture.

In his novel, the dominant American understanding of racial identity and representations is relentlessly questioned and mocked.

The Hollywood film director, for example, chooses to film his Vietnam War epic in the Philippines.

The reason? Because "authen- ticity's important", but "not that authenticity beats imagination".

This could get tiresome, but luckily Nguyen has a good turn of phrase, undercutting the question of race with humorous observation of American cultures.

For example, the narrator observes that the effect of the British accent "affected Americans the way a dog whistle stimulated canines".

The Sympathizer is very aware of its place in the war literature canon. Graham Greene's iconic novel The Quiet American is the unnamed narrator's undergraduate thesis. At one point, he takes offence at the novel's passive central character Phuong.

"The Vietnamese girl, all she does is prepare opium, read picture books and twitter like a bird," he complains to a friend. "Have you ever met a Vietnamese girl like her? If so, please introduce me. All the ones I meet can't keep their mouths shut in or out of bed."

There is no question that Nguyen's is a dazzling work. His best passages pulsed with love for his native Saigon and the tenacity of the Vietnamese.

In an evocative scene as a group of homesick Vietnamese refugees listen to Nancy Sinatra's Bang Bang layered with a Vietnamese classic titled We Will Never Forget, he writes: "Bang bang was the sound of memory's pistol firing into our heads, for we could not forget love, we could not forget war, we could not forget the caramel flavor of iced coffee with coarse sugar, the hills afire with sunset... the most important thing we could never forget was that we could never forget."

If you like this, read: The Quiet American by Graham Greene (2002, Penguin Group, $23.46, Books Kinokuniya), an anti-war work inspired by the writer's reporting experiences during the devastating Vietnam War.

Lee Xin En



    By Gregory Maguire

    William Morrow/Paperback/$29.96/288 pages/Books Kinokuniya/3 stars

The fictional lands of other authors are homeground for Maguire, who with his successful The Wicked Years series trundled through the land of Oz, giving side characters a new lease of life, fleshing them out with backstories and motives, love and loss.

With After Alice, he resuscitates the same formula for Lewis Carroll's beloved Alice's Adventures In Wonderland - this time with Ada, Alice's playmate, and Lydia, Alice's sister.

The book is a glacial stroll through a Wonderland that lacks any true wonder - though the book is rescued by Maguire's writing and dialogue, which is packed with wit and humour.

But the Wonderland Maguire has drawn up is short on charm and too heavy on whimsy, serving as a crowded carousel for Carroll's characters - here the Mad Hatter, there the Queen of Hearts - who seem to be drifting in and out of the story with no clear purpose, making obligatory cameos that inevitably start to grate.

Instead, Victorian London - dowdy, with its stiff upper-lipped, high-collared social rules - becomes the far more compelling world as the book flits between Wonderland and 1860s Oxford.

Young Ada, body clapsed in the fist of an iron corset to set her crooked spine right, tumbles through a hole and finds herself in a strange new world. Her corset falls apart and she is free: from her ungainly self and from the mundane world of social pressures and graces.

Meanwhile, 15-year-old Lydia, whose mother's death has made her the new mistress of the house, has no such luck. She is trapped above ground, where expectations of her role in society chafe at her.

Charles Darwin comes to visit, bringing with him the concept of evolution and setting the stage for clashes of science and religion. With him are a handsome American and Siam, a young ex-slave boy, whose presence opens up a tangential discussion on slavery, that sits jarringly in this story.

The book sets up an appealing contrast between the two girls that does not quite deliver, bogged down instead by a plot that plods along and its eagerness to pay tribute to Carroll's classic, namedropping his characters at every turn.

If you like this, read: Wicked: The Life And Times Of The Wicked Witch Of The West by Gregory Maguire (1995, HarperCollins, $26.82, Books Kinokuniya), another spin on a well-loved classic. This vivid and imaginative lead-up to L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz follows green-skinned Elphaba, who will one day be the Wicked Witch of the West.

Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh



    By Stephen King

    Hodder & Stoughton/Hardback/483 pages/ $38/ Times Bookstores/4 stars

Putting out a collection of short stories, King says in the preface to this book, makes him feel like a street vendor - one who sells only at midnight.

A short story can be "invigorating, sometimes even shocking... like a kiss in the dark or a beautiful curio laid out for sale at a street bazaar".

Rich pickings abound in this compilation of 20 short stories and poems, some previously unpublished and others revised from recent journal publications.

The strength of the collection lies in the coherence of its main themes of guilt and morality across a wide range of plots.

Many are classic horror tales featuring supernatural occurrences that King executes with aplomb. But his detailed studies of everyday characters in testing situations also offer refreshing perspectives.

However, two pieces of mediocre narrative poetry - The Bone Church and Tommy - are disappointing outliers.

Each story is preceded with an introductory note by the author.

Some may find the constant authorial presence in the book distracting. But his introductory notes are often self-deprecating and laced with enough black humour and subtle irony to make them interesting.

Biographically, there are some juicy tidbits. For example, did you know King had to sell his blood to a clinic to get by in his college years?

This is revealed before the droll tale Morality, where a nurse performs a sinful deed for an old reverend in exchange for much needed cash, but the psychological effects of that experience leave her irrevocably transformed.

King is at his strongest when he operates in his familiar mode, the first-person confessional.

In the gripping Bad Little Kid, a man murders a carrot-haired imp that has taunted him all his life with relish.

The author's explorations of the ways writing intersects with new technology are also fascinating.

Ur, a piece that was written exclusively for e-commerce giant Amazon, features a man who begins uncovering horrific prophecies in alternative universes within a rogue Kindle.

In Obits, a journalist from a website that trolls celebrities, discovers he has the power to kill people by writing their obituaries.

King's weakest stories focus on striking premises at the expense of convincing characters.

The story Mile 81, which features a flesh-eating car prompted by his memories of driving down a desolate highway, becomes increasingly tedious as character after bland character slowly fall prey to it.

But overall, this latest collection, which meditates on time, mortality and technological progress with a dose of thrill and snark, is a bazaar worth trawling through - even for passing visitors outside of King's loyal fanbase.

If you like this, read: On Writing by Stephen King (2000, Hodder & Stoughton, $28.14, Books Kino- kuniya), a memoir documenting King's experiences as a writer.

Yuen Sin



    By Pierre Lemaitre

    Translated by Frank Wynne

    MacLehose Press/Paperback/461pages/$32.95/ Books Kinokuniya/3.5 stars

The Great Swindle opens in the final days of World War II, but Lemaitre swiftly makes it clear that the Allied victory is a hollow one for a war-wearied France that can barely even begin to bury its dead.

Two wounded soldiers, Albert Maillard and Edouard Pericourt, return to find themselves outcasts in a society revolted by them and decide to exact vengeance through the titular swindle.

Lemaitre, an established crime writer, won the Prix Goncourt, France's top literary prize, for this novel. He paints a cynical portrait of post-war France in staggering detail. It is a society obsessed with glorifying its war dead, but which cannot hide its disgust at the waves of crippled survivors returning to a civilian existence with no room for them.

Albert and Edouard find their fates inextricably bound on the frontline, after Edouard rescues Albert from being buried alive and gets hit by a chunk of flying shrapnel which destroys most of his face.

Back in Paris, Albert struggles to support both of them on his measly wages as a sandwich board man, even resorting to crime to feed Edouard's morphine addiction.

A former artist, Edouard hits upon the idea to scam his grieving countrymen by getting them to pay for maudlin memorials that he designs but will never build.

Meanwhile, their former lieutenant Henri d'Aulnay Pradelle, who forced them into their dire straits to begin with, is plotting a swindle of his own. He plans to bury bodies at cutthroat costs - jamming soldiers into cheap coffins too small for them, hiring illiterate foreign workers who put the corpses in the wrong graves, and so on.

Lemaitre excels in the body horror necessary to drive home disillusionment. Bodies are "hacked and sawed" like lumber to fit into Pradelle's coffins, the excess bits tossed into a spare casket labelled "Unidentified Soldier".

The author takes a particularly ghoulish delight in describing the ruin of Edouard's face, the "gaping void" below his nose, beneath it "a pulp of crimson flesh and something deep within that must be his epiglottis".

An especially horrific image is when Albert punches him in a fit of anger and ends up with his fist stuck in the hole in his friend's face.

The tightly paced plot is, however, let down by Frank Wayne's sometimes awkward translation. He sometimes switches tenses abruptly for no reason, which is distracting.

Eccentric Edouard is endearing enough, with his dark humour towards his plight and his penchant for colourful masks to hide his disfigurement. Pradelle, however, is a villain so unrelentingly despicable that his character begins to appear one- dimensional in his cruelty.

Lemaitre unsubtly compares him to "the vile Inspector Javert", the antagonist of Victor Hugo's 19th- century epic Les Miserables.

Pradelle, however, lacks the moral complexities that made Javert such a compelling nemesis, and his eventual downfall is the less satisfying for it.

Lemaitre's female characters are also disappointingly flat archetypes - wives who silently suffer straying husbands and are saved only through maternity, or secretaries and housemaids whose sexual harassment is treated more as comic punctuation than as a real problem.

The story may be set in the 1940s, but there is no real need for it to take on the misogyny of the era.

If you like this book, read: the Inspector Maigret novels by Georges Simenon, such as Maigret's Dead Man (1948, Books Kinokuniya, $15.21), in which French police detective Jules Maigret plunges into the murky Parisian underworld after a man who tried to call him for help turns up dead.

Olivia Ho



    By Ian Rankin

    The Orion Publishing Group/Paperback/$26.95/345 pages/Books Kinokuniya/4 stars

After a year-long sabbatical, Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin returns with his latest novel and he has dragged veteran detective John Rebus out of retirement, yet again.

This time, the boorish and shrewd cop, who is in his 60s now, takes on the role of consultant detective.

Along with another regular character, detective inspector Siobhan Clarke, Rebus assists in an investigation into the death of a senior prosecutor whose body is found along with a menacing note.

Rebus' long-time foe, retired gangster Big Ger Cafferty, receives an identical note, adding an unlikely twist to the plot where both sides of the law are under attack in Edinburgh.

On the other side of town, detective inspector Malcolm Fox has been roped in to work with a team monitoring a Glaswegian mobster unit, who are on a manhunt.

Rankin masterfully and seamlessly connects the various components while retaining a cloud of page-turning suspense till the end.

Though he further develops the roles of Fox and Clarke in this novel, it is the scenes between Rebus and Cafferty that are particularly golden. They might have been arch enemies in the past, but have now evolved into frenemies who remind each other of the top dogs they once were.

When once their exchanges were filled with barbed comments, there is now honesty and mutual respect.

In a meeting at Cafferty's home, the gangster lays his cards on the table: "Whatever's going on, I can't afford to look weak, or like I'm suddenly cosying up to the law and order brigade."

Ultimately, it is Rebus who steals the show and rightly so.

The detective sticks to classic tried-and-tested investigative methods, showing Rankin's readers that he has still got it after all these years and is still the grizzled and brilliant cop that they have come to adore.

The question on the minds of Rebus fans, including myself, is: What role will he take in Rankin's next book?

If you like this, read: Blood, Salt, Water by Denise Mina (Quercus Publishing, 2015, $20.72, Books Kinokuniya). In the fifth novel in the detective investigator Alex Morrow series, Scottish writer Mina has Morrow investigating the disappearance of a woman suspected of being involved in a large criminal operation. Meanwhile, a recently released prisoner struggles to commit a murder on the orders of a local crime kingpin.

Gurveen Kaur



    By Mitch Albom

    Sphere/Hardback/512 pages/$30.96/Major bookstores/3.5 stars

The one topic that best-selling American writer Mitch Albom has consistently tackled in his books, whether fiction or non-fiction, has been death and mortality.

This started from his debut, the memoir Tuesdays With Morrie (1997), about Albom's interactions with his dying mentor, to the fictional The First Call From Heaven (2013), set in a small town where residents get telephone calls from the afterlife.

In The Magic Strings Of Frankie Presto, it is the eponymous character who has died under mysterious circumstances.

Short of being a one-trick pony, Albom reinforces his credibility as a sensitive, thought-provoking author although the book does occasionally stray into maudlin, sappy territory.

The plot features a classic underdog beating the odds and doing good. The protagonist this time is guitarist Presto, orphaned at an early age and experiencing the Spanish Civil War and the tyranny of a despot during the same period in the 1930s.

Through his sheer musical talent, he manages to go places. The Spaniard makes his way to the United States acting as a translator for Belgium-born French guitarist Django Reinhardt, whom he meets on an off-chance. He would later back up Elvis Presley, counsel songwriter Hank Williams, perform to sell-out concerts and score numerous Top 10 hits.

He changes lives through his music, but at the height of his popularity, disappears. He re-emerges from obscurity only decades later, but dies under mysterious circumstances.

The book opens with his funeral. Peppered in the story are eulogies delivered by those whose lives Presto has touched with his immense charisma and talent.

The strings in the title refer to guitar strings, but they could also well refer to the readers' heartstrings, which will also invariably be pulled by the inspirational impact Presto has had on people's lives. While the story packs an emotional impact, it is marred by the omniscient narrator, Music.

That Music is a divine figure which blesses newborns with musical talent and then returns to collect the talent when musicians die to pass it on to another baby is somewhat incredulous.

For example, there are several cheesy scenes where Music shows up at the deathbeds of musicians such as the late jazz artist Billie Holiday and the late rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix to collect his gifts to pass it on to someone else.

The story has a clear message: pure talent can, and should, be put to good use to change lives. But the execution feels awkward.

  • Books Kinokuniya and Popular are now selling the book at 20 per cent off at $24.77. The original price with GST is $30.96, which is also its retail price at MPH

If you like this, read: The Five People You Meet In Heaven by Mitch Albom (2003, Little Brown Book Group, $18.95). His debut novel is about the life and death of an amusement park maintenance man.

Walter Sim

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 03, 2016, with the headline Laying bare the horrors of France. Subscribe