Searching for the Self: ‘Missing Person’ by Patrick Modiano

Conor Flynn 6 January 2019

Missing Person (Rue des Boutiques Obscures, 1978) is French author Patrick Modiano’s sixth novel. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, with his victory being ‘for the art of memory with which he evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-world of the occupation’. The skill and care with which Modiano writes about memory are evident in Missing Person, a novel that follows an amnesiac detective trying to find out about his past life.

This short classic, predominantly told in the first person by the protagonist Guy, begins in the office of a small detective agency. Its owner, Hutte, a close friend of Guy’s, is shutting it down and retiring to Nice, leaving Guy alone in Paris. We are told that our protagonist came to Hutte’s agency some eight years ago for help with discovering his identity, before joining him to work as his partner. Having lived under the fake identity of Guy Roland for all that time, his partner’s retirement prompts him to begin a full-time search for his real identity. This leads to a fast-paced novel from the outset, as Guy follows various leads about his past that takes him across Paris, as he meets people from diverse parts of the world and walks of life, with varying degrees of success. The book slows down as he begins to solve the seemingly endless clues of the mystery surrounding his identity, and the novel morphs from a detective novel to one of reflection and contemplation, as Guy realises that the key to discovering his past life hinges on the Occupation.

The success of Missing Person, which won Modiano the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1978, comes down to its seamless integration of the psychological and existential into the often formulaic genre of detective fiction. It is as enjoyable for its expected scenes of thrill and mystery as it is for its often profound analysis of identity and memory, all presented in blunt, straightforward first-person prose not dissimilar to that of Meursault’s in Albert Camus’s L’Étranger. Like his fellow Nobel laureate, the readability of Modiano’s work makes the complex themes he tackles accessible and engaging, while the matter-of-fact way in which Missing Person is written makes the numerous characters and anecdotes it introduces manageable.

The Occupation of France is firmly embedded in a lot of Modiano’s work since his father (of Jewish Italian origin) and his Belgian mother met in Paris during World War Two. Modiano was born two months after its conclusion and went on to have a difficult upbringing. Raised with Flemish as his mother tongue by his maternal grandparents due to the absence of his father, and his mother’s job as an actor, his brother Rudy died at the age of nine. He spoke candidly of his difficult childhood in his 2005 autobiography Un Pedigree, saying that until his twenty-first birthday everything was going on in front of him and he wasn’t yet able to live his life, describing his memoir as ‘a book less on what I did than on what others, mainly my parents, did to me’. It is frankness like this that enables him to write work that tackles complex tragic issues such as the Holocaust with simultaneous lucidity and emotion.

Missing Person is a must-read for the way it introduces existentialism into the detective novel in a way that feels natural and genuine, and leads to a book that, thanks to Modiano’s straightforward writing style, is both entertaining and thought-provoking, and gets to the heart of the struggle for identity faced by so many during the Occupation.