Every time I visit Paris I’m always stopped short in the street by the sight of the small plaques commemorating those who died fighting the Nazi occupation. Ici est tombé pour la libération…Sometimes just one name, sometimes a few. They appear on walls as if at random but with a map and a history book it would be easy enough, I imagine, to chart the ebbs and flows of partisan warfare in the city.
It is easier, though, to work out the old working class Jewish areas around Belleville. There some blocks of flats have lists of those taken by the Nazis and, more dramatically, school buildings listing the names of the Jewish children deported and murdered.
I was reminded of all this when reading The Search Warrant, the first of the books released in English following the French author’s winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This is a short, sombre, novel of 137 pages which can be read in one sitting, and probably benefits for so doing as it has no continuous narrative. The narrator comes across an old notice in Paris Soir in a December 1941 issue, advertising for information on a missing girl, Dora Bruder, who had ran away from her convent school where she had been placed to avoid the impending trouble. She was Jewish and would have been a “hidden child”. The narrator tries to find what happened to her and what happened to her family. Along the way he drops in details of his own family background, a broken family where – just as in his hunt for information on the Bruder family – he tries and fails to find his own estranged father who’d escaped from a round-up in Paris. He wonders if his father, who survived the war, had met Dora Bruder who was caught and did not survive.
The Search Warrant is a brooding novel with a narrator who turns out not to be so nice. Hanging over him all the time is a sense of loss. Something only too easy to feel in the boulevards of what was once an occupied city.
The book is ably translated and I look forward to reading more Modiano as his work appears in English.