Missing Person
by Patrick Modiano
He is reclusive.  He rarely gives interviews.  
He won't be found at the fashionable cocktail
parties.  Patrick Modiano is a writer who
keeps out of the limelight, letting his work—
documented in some thirty novels, published
over more than four
decades—speak for
itself.   Born in the
final days of World
War II to an Italian
Jewish father and
Belgian mother,
Modiano came of
age in Paris.  There
he was discovered by Raymond Queneau—
who was also the youngster’s math teacher at
the Lycée Henri-IV. Modiano’s life was
surrounded from the start by discontinuity
and turbulence.  Thus it was all too fitting
that his first novel, La Place de l'Étoile, was
published in May of 1968, at a moment when
France was beset by civil unrest that seemed
poised to boil over into open revolt.   Even
Modiano’s marriage would be best
remembered for a fierce argument between
two groomsmen, the literary titans Queneau
and Malraux. Tragedy haunted him from a
young age, and the formative experiences of
his early years—the Nazi occupation, the
death of his brother, the absence of his
father—are echoed in his fiction, where
issues of the war, death and cultural identity
loom large.  Despite his low public profile,
Modiano has made a lasting mark with his
fiction.  He was awarded the Goncourt Prize
in 1978 for Missing Person and was given the
300,000 €  Prix mondial Cino Del Duca in
2010 for his contributions to modern
Essay by Ted Gioia

The missing person in the title of Patrick Modiano's
novel, winner of the Goncourt Prize for 1978, is
the detective himself.   Guy Roland suffers from
amnesia, the period of his life before launching his
career as a private investigator is
almost a complete blank.  Even
his name and nationality are a
mystery to him.  Now after a
career of solving other people's
problems, he turns to his own.  

The moment of crisis for Roland,
when his past fell away, was—
perhaps not surprisingly—during
the period of Nazi occupation of France.  In an era
when many did things they would like to forget, our
hero somehow literally wiped his memory clean, a
gesture rich with symbolic resonance.   Now, as he
tries to pick up the pieces, he follows an enticing
series of clues, each one leading him to another
informant, another piece of the puzzle.

Yet the pieces do not seem to fit together.   At one
point, Roland is convinced that he was closely
involved with Russian émigrés in his now forgotten
past life.   Yet other clues indicate that he was in
Hollywood, serving as confidant to actor John
Gilbert.   Another source suggests that he was a
part of the diplomatic corps for a Latin American
nation.  Or that his last name was really McEvoy,
and he left France before the outbreak of the war.  
Or he was a Greek named Stern, a broker who
resided in Rome and Paris.  Or maybe some
combination of these enigmatic identities, these
obscure destinies.

Where other detectives gather clues, Roland collects
mementos.  Almost everyone he interrogates has a
story to share—but not necessarily the one our
investigator has come to hear.  These various
parties give him relics from their own personal
tragedies: old photos, letters, a magazine, a book.  
Soon he is overloaded with keepsakes, invariably
stored in some second-hand container.   "It
certainly seemed everything ended with old
chocolate or biscuit or cigar boxes," he muses.

From these disparate sources Roland gradually
pieces together bits and pieces of his own
narrative.   These are supplemented by flashes of
recovered memory, but the reader is never quite
sure whether the recollections are authentic or
merely the result of an overheated imagination.  
Roland is too ready to agree, to play the role others
assign him.  He has lost more than his memory, it
seems, and at times appears to have lost his sense
of self as well.  

Will this story end in a final resolution of its
mystery?  Or another dead-end?  Or some
combination of the two?  Certainly Modiano
doesn't hesitate in shaking up the conventions of
the mystery genre.   And as our detective gets closer
and closer to the story of his life, he seems to find
himself as the victim of a crime, the wounded
survivor of a now forgotten conspiracy.

What a strange mystery, where the same character
figures as victim, client, detective and key witness!  
Modiano amplifies the inward focus of his narrative
by presenting his protagonist as without wife or
children, or apparently even close friends.  Even his
long-time boss and colleague in the private eye firm
where he works has moved away, leaving Roland
alone in his quest to solve this very personal
mystery.  In such a solipsistic story, any
investigation is bound to collapse into endless self-
questioning and internal probing.  

It is all too fitting that such a story ends by leaving
almost everything behind, thousands of miles away
from its starting point, and with still more journeys
ahead of our hero.   Those who like the mystery
genre for its neat resolutions and the comforting
sense of closure from a crime solved, justice up-
held, and a perpetrator punished, will only get a
queasy sensation from
Missing Person.  In this quest
for identity, the very notion of self begins to fade
under close scrutiny.  "Do not our lives dissolve
into the evening?" our narrator concludes, as he
accepts the possibility that the person he is seeking
will never be found, his identity as ephemeral as
"the sand holds the traces of our footsteps but a
few moments."

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and pop culture. His
latest book is Love Songs: The Hidden History, published
by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
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Further Clues:

2010 Interview with Patrick Modiano

Reviewer gives up on Missing Person with only 40
pages left to read
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at
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The Manual of Detection

Alfred Bester
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Roberto Bolaño

Jorge Luis Borges

Truman Capote
In Cold Blood

Michael Chabon
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Mo Yan
The Republic of Wine

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Missing Person

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Joyce Carol Oates
Mysteries of Winterthurn

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The Third Policeman

Orhan Pamuk
The Black Book

Georges Perec
A Void

Marisha Pessl
Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thomas Pynchon
The Crying of Lot 49
Inherent Vice

Alain Robbe-Grillet
The Erasers
The Voyeur

Leonardo Sciascia
The Day of the Owl
Equal Danger

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Mulligan Stew

Theodore Sturgeon
Some of Your Blood

Miguel Syjuco

Other articles and feature:
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Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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