Monday, August 31, 2015

"Dora Bruder" by Patrick Modiano

View of the accommodation block at Drancy with French gendarme on guard
-- from Wikipedia article "Drancy internment camp."
Memory and forgetting are the topics of the book Dora Bruder by recent Nobelist Patrick Modiano. Dora Bruder, born in 1926, ran away and disappeared from her Catholic school, disappeared from her family, disappeared finally into transit camps in France and then into the Holocaust, eventually disappeared from the memories of possible schoolmates, of possible teachers, of anyone possible at all. 

Years after the war ended, Modiano had seen a Paris newspaper ad from 1941 asking for news of Dora. She had run away from her school; he became curious and over a period of years, he tried to find out about her life as a Jewish child, a French citizen, daughter of an Austrian-Jewish man and a Hungarian-Jewish woman living legally in a hotel on a particular street in Paris. He searched for information about her life as a runaway or about her life as a child perhaps being hidden by nuns in a Catholic school. He searched for people that had known her, but finds only people whose experiences were simultaneous and parallel.

As Modiano searched, we learn from the book, he visited the streets where she lived and walked, streets already familiar to him because he'd lived his life in the same neighborhood. Exact locations in Paris are so important that one needs Paris street maps. Two small maps, along with a few photos of Dora, illustrate the book.

Modiano, who was born in 1945, writes of his own life -- in safer times -- as he writes about his effort to reconstruct the life of Dora Bruder. She's gone, he finds: disappeared. Of course the idea is that a vast community of lives were not only lost, but their memories completely erased; vast numbers of people disappeared as did this one in particular. 

In writing, Modiano manages to make this point with discretion and subtlety, without being melodramatic. He matter-of-factly describes his search for information about Dora and where she had run to, and where she ended up. He forces the reader to ask the hard questions.

Here's an example. Modiano describes a film, a trivial film, titled Premier rendez-vous that showed in Paris in 1941: "a harmless comedy." He had seen the film decades later. Had Dora seen it? He wondered. The film seemed to have a "peculiar luminosity... Every image seemed veiled in an arctic whiteness that accentuated the contrasts and sometimes obliterated them. The lighting was at once too bright and too dim, either stifling the voices or making their timbre louder, more disturbing." (p. 65)

Modiano speculated:
"Suddenly, I realized that this film was impregnated with the gaze of moviegoers from the time of the Occupation -- people from all walks of life, most of whom would not have survived the war.They had been taken out of themselves after having seen this film one Saturday night, their night out. While it lasted, you forgot the war and the menacing world outside. Huddled together in the dark of a cinema, you were caught up in the flow of images on the screen, and nothing more could happen to you. And by some kind of chemical process, this combined gaze had materially altered the actual film, the lighting, the voices of the actors. This is what I had sensed, thinking of Dora Bruder and faced with the ostemsibly trival images of Premier rendez-vous." (p. 66)
Obviously reading this book is an extremely painful experience, and obviously it must have been even more painful to write. With the world today full of refugees, full of death as they try to find anywhere that they can live, it's even more painful than when Modiano wrote it around 20 years ago. Painful. Impossible.

The last paragraph of the book:
"I shall never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she passed the winter months of her first escape, or the few weeks of spring when seh escaped for the second time. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that not even the executioners, the decrees, the occupying authorities, the Depot, the barracks, the camps, History, time -- everything that defiles and destroys you -- have been able to take away from her." (p. 119)

Saturday, August 29, 2015

"The Wild Geese" by Ogai Mori

The Red Gate of Tokyo University, not far from the campus guest house where we stayed in 2011.
The Wild Geese, a short novel by Ogai Mori, takes place in locations near the medical campus of Tokyo University in 1880. The main character, Okada, a medical student, often takes walks around this campus. Thus there are references and sometimes descriptions of the local landmarks and neighborhoods.
"Okada had regular routes for his daily walks. He would go down the lonely slope caled Muenzaka and travel north along Shinobazu Pond. Then he would stroll up the hill in Ueno Park. Next he went down to Hirokoji ... he would go through the compound of Yushima Shrine...after passing the gloomy Karatachi Temple. ... There was another route. he occasionally entered the university campus by the exit used by the patients of the hospital attached to the medical school because the Iron Gate was closed early. Going through the Red Gate, he would proceed along Hongo-dori..." (p. 15)
A Shrine or Temple near Tokyo University Medical school, 2011.
My husband attended a conference on this campus in December, 2011. We stayed in a guest house owned by the medical school. As I read the story, my mind flooded with vague images from my own walks in that neighborhood. The old narrow streets, rickshaws, and various types of traditional houses have mainly disappeared, but my memories include an amazing number of city features from Mori's story.

One of the ponds on the way from the Tokyo University campus to Ueno Park.
While the medical student, Okada, is the central character of The Wild Geese in one sense, the majority of the story is background, a description of the life of a woman named Otama that Okada catches a glimpse of one day on a walk. Throughout most of the novel, the reader must hold the student and his interest in Otama in mind while learning about the woman, a kept mistress; about her father, a down-on-his-luck widower; about the usurer who buys Otama; about the way the usurer treats his wife; and to some extent the story of the students who borrow money from the usurer.

Finally, the story gets back to the relationship of Okada and Otama. I'm not going to tell how it ends, because that would spoil it if you decide to read it. I'll just say that it's a beautifully built-up story with a really interesting ending, and a very enjoyable read about Old Tokyo.

A traditional restaurant in Tokyo, 2011.
Ogai Mori (1862-1922) published The Wild Geese serially from 1911 to 1913. He had studied Western Medicine at the Tokyo University medical school, and had lived in Europe while continuing his studies. 

I was inspired to read this book by a blogging event titled "Japanese Literature Challenge 9."