Patrick Modiano has been on my list to read for a while, and this book in particular, partly as I share with so many others that vague fascination for the period of WWII, the fight against fascism, the holocaust. But Dora Bruder is also an exploration of Paris as palimpsest that I loved, almost a documentary account of Modiano’s investigating and unraveling of the story of a young woman who had run away from her home in the same tangles of streets he had been familiar with for much of his life…
From day to day, with the passage of time, I find, perspectives become blurred, one winter merging with into another. That of 1965 and that of 1942.
In 1965, I knew nothing of Dora Bruder. But now, thirty years on, it seems to me that those long waits in the cafes at the Ornano crossroads, those unvarying itineraries–the Rue du Mont-Cernis to me back to some hotel on the Butte Montmartre: the Roma or the Alsina or the Terrass, Rue Caulaincourt–and the fleeting impressions I have retained: snatches of conversation heard on a spring evening, beneath the trees in the Square Cilgnancourt, and again, in winter, on the way down to Simplon and the Boulevard Ornano, all that was not simply due to chance. Perhaps, though not yet fully aware of it, I was following the traces of Dora Bruder and her parents. Already, below the surface, they were there. (6)
For Modiano there are memories of an old photographer, a street market, a girlfriend’s house and waits in cafes, the street deserted and riot police at each crossroads in May 1958 because ‘the situation in Algeria’ (4). I am caught up by such casual references, still struggling to understand just what the legacy of France’s crimes in Algeria has been, and how it has been experienced.
Modiano mentions Les Miserables, the flight of Jean Valjean and cosette across Paris, past the Jardins de Plantes, crossing the bridge and Pont d’Austerlitz:
And suddenly, you have a sensation of vertigo, as if Cosette and Jean Valjean, to escape Javert and the police, have taken a leap into space: thus far, they have been following real Paris streets,, and now, abruptly, Victor Huge thrusts them into the imaginary district of Paris that he calls the Petit Picpus. It is the same sense of strangeness that overcomes you when you find yourself walking through an unfamiliar district in a dream. On waking, you realise, little by little, that the pattern of its streets had overlaid the one with which, in daytime, you are familiar. (41)
But the convent these two literary figures find refuge in is very similar, almost exactly despite its imaginary geography, to the Saint-Coeur-de-Marie school where Dora was a boarder.
She is put there for safety and never registered as a Jew, but runs away, keeps running away. Comes home and the off she runs again. Why does she run? I like that this book never pretends to know, and we are left with the traces of her life that he could find to invent our own histories and ask our own questions. I like how it names streets, painstakingly collects the track record of documents, transfer orders. Addresses carefully noted. The banal bureaucracies of institutional evil all carefully documented. Dora Bruder runs, but not far enough, not fast enough to escape the Nazis and death in Auschwitz.
And then there is the post war reconstruction, whole areas pulled down, whole blocks left rubble alongside houses and churches still standing. So this joins my collection of rubble books, like Vauxhall, like The Chicago Coast. I confess I am looking for them now. Here it is as much to erase the city’s own crime as recognised by the world, as to erase the unrecognised crimes of poverty and injustice.
They have obliterated everything in order to build a sort of Swiss village in order that nobody, ever again, would question its neutrality.
The patches of wallpaper that I had seen thirty years ago in the Rue des Jardins-Saint-Paul were remnants of former rooms–rooms that had been home to young people of Dora’s age until the day when the police had come for them in July 1942. The list of their names is always associated with the same streets. And the street names and house numbers no longer correspond to anything at all. (113)