Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano’s most famous novel, Dora Bruder, is something like a ghost story, though not in the traditional sense. It is a ghostly story about a young man and a nation haunted by history. Modiano received the Nobel Prize in literature in 2014, the fifteenth French writer to do so after the 2008 laureate Jean- Marie Georges Le Clézio. While Le Clézio’s writing is sensual and tinted with exoticism, Modiano’s is sparse, introspective, and heavily autobiographical, sometimes even termed “autofiction.”
Patrick Modiano was born in 1945 to Jewish parents who evaded roundups and deportation in occupied Paris, and much of his work centers—you could say it fixates—on the bloody time that preceded his birth when Nazi Germany occupied France from June 1940 to June 1944. Dora Bruder retraces the life of one young woman during this time, which today is still referred to simply as “the Occupation” and remembered as one of the darkest stains on French history. Nazi soldiers were stationed in people’s homes (including my own grandfather’s), people disappeared overnight, concentration camps were built on French soil, and Nazi forces retaliated against resistance groups by executing suspected dissidents with firing squads and massacring entire villages. Maybe the worst part is that many of the French collaborated with the occupiers, whether it was out of ideology, greed or survival instinct. Intellectuals disseminated fascist, Nazi-sympathetic ideology. Companies profited from manufacturing contracts with the German Army to help build its arsenal. Ordinary citizens denounced Jews or Communists, whose assets were sometimes seized and given to the denouncer.
A weighty legacy of active or passive collaboration that goes unaddressed contributes to a pervasive sense of guilt. Movies and history books tend to allot the antifascist resistance the vast majority of the limelight, because it is validat- ing to insist upon the struggle of Good against Evil. Collaborators are rarely depicted, except as villains in these kinds of works. But Dora Bruder does not fit into these narratives. Instead it is a grimmer piece of history, harder to recon- cile by narrativizing it: the story of one of the many people caught in an impersonal, systematic form of Evil.
A previous French Nobel laureate, Albert Camus, is thought to have addressed the post-war, post-Holocaust disorientation and guilt in a 1956 novel titled The Fall, which centers on a man whose sense of self is upended when he is crossing a bridge and sees a woman perched on the edge. He keeps on walking, and when he hears her body hit the water he does not turn around. He goes on his way and tells no one what he has seen, but he starts to act destructive and self-destructive because he considers that acting like a good man when he has let someone die would be hypocrisy. Most read The Fall as a metaphor for Europeans’ inability to reckon with the Holocaust. Dora Bruder deals with this event on a more in- timate level, through the eyes of a protagonist who feels uncomfortably close to the events rather than too distant.
The title character of the novel is a young Jewish girl whom the narrator tries to follow through history. (He may or may not be the author himself, recounting the exact process of his fact-finding.) Using official records, he traces Dora’s path from her home to the Catholic boarding school where she hid from the secret police during the infamous Vel d’Hiv roundup, when the Jews in Paris were detained in the Winter Velodrome for several days. Eventually, though, she ran away from school and roamed the city for a short time, but soon the police picked her up and incarcerated in a women’s prison before being sent to a concentration camp in Drancy, outside Paris. From there she was deported to Auschwitz. But the facts are not enough. What he really wants to know and never manages to find out is who Dora really was, why she ran away, how she spent her moments of freedom while she was away from school and had disappeared.
The nameless protagonist becomes obsessed with the long- dead teenager when he stumbles upon a personal ad in the evening newspaper Paris-Soir from December 31st, 1941. “Seeking a young girl, Dora Bruder, 15, 1.55 meters, oval face, brown-gray eyes, gray sport coat, maroon sweater, navy blue skirt and hat, brown athletic shoes. Direct all information to Mr. and Mrs. Bruder, 41 boulevard Ornano, Paris.” It never becomes clear how the narrator found this ad, but it is obvious why he first latches onto it. As a child in the 60s, he remembers walking down the boulevard Ornano on the very northern edge of Paris and going to the movie theater right next door, though the nondescript building where Mr. and Mrs. Bruder once lived never caught his eye. But once he reads about their daughter, he can feel an inkling of her presence. “Today, thirty years later, it seems to me that those long waits in the cafés by that intersection, those strolls, always the same…all that was not simply due to chance. Maybe, without being distinctly conscious of it, I was already following the traces of Dora Bruder and her parents. They were already there in the background.”
In the original text, the exact expression I have rendered as “in the background” is “en filigrane,” which refers to fine copper threads embedded in a piece of paper that are only visible when the sheet is held up to the light. Like the metal threads, the presence of the departed in the places they used to inhabit is hard to see, latent, but indissociable from the whole. There is something heavy and haunting about those moments when the superimposed layers of history that time has piled on a place become immediate and almost visible.
I have found that in Paris the past is easier to summon than it is in most other places. Aside from neon signs in storefronts it looks much the same as it did in 1945 or 1905. It was never bombed. Hitler, who destroyed millions of lives, minds, books, and buildings, could not bear to damage the jewel of European urban culture. But there are ghosts lurking in the streets— you can feel them still seventy years after the Liberation, you really can—and in a way Dora stands in for all of them. She is like the title character of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, a child murdered by her enslaved mother who comes back to life and haunts her. Beloved is a physical reminder of the suppressed past, a thorn constantly reviving the survivor’s guilt of her family. Similarly, places imbued with Dora’s presence evoke in the narrator “the feeling of emptiness that one feels in front of that which has been destroyed, razed to the ground.”
Dora haunts the narrator, who is plagued by a persistent feeling that her destiny could have been his own or his father’s. He retraces Dora’s steps through the city where he grew up and where his father, like Dora, dodged the Gestapo and the homegrown Parisian police. The narrator’s memories are superimposed, like filigrane, onto the lives of Dora and his father, both Jews who tried to evade the occupation. Like Dora, the narrator ran away from home as a teenager, and he imagines that she too felt “a feeling of rebellion and solitude made incandescent that cuts short your breath and renders you weightless.” Learning about Dora’s arrest and subsequent ride in a police van in handcuffs prompts the narrator to reminisce about the time he was arrested as a teenager. Or rather, his father allows him to be arrested for loitering at his door. Father and son ride in the police car together, and the son remembers that his father has experienced this before: in 1942, the police division in charge of “Jewish questions” arrested him and drove him to the station. He wants to ask his father if that nerve-wracking episode is on his mind, and how he could have the gall to let his own son go through the same thing he did. This is one of the last times the narrator every sees his father. Is the narrator latching onto Dora because her life took many of the same turns as his father’s and searching for her is really a search for him?
Although the protagonist has a clear aim, the narrative (no one could legitimately call it a plot) meanders without a destination, not seeming to build towards anything. The narrator never learns the answer to the question that drives the story’s loose semblance of a progression: what was going on in Dora Bruder’s head? Who was she really? His quest quickly comes to seem futile, because all there is left of Dora is paperwork. The narrator wanders through the past and present, wading through the mire of administrative records in passages that are boring and lacking in liveliness because the information he finds out about Dora is merely the dry- as-dust outline of her civil status. The Nazis registered every turn of every cog in their murderous system with a conscientiousness that made them all the more terrifying. In recording the material details of the human beings they destroyed, they reduced them to inert, dead data points. Dora Bruder is a novel recording the process of chasing a paper trail to find that which no bureaucratic inventory can capture. This quest starts looking increasingly pointless as the pages of the book dwindle, but the narrator’s desire to find some truth remains so palpably strong that an impression persists that maybe the mystery will be solved. And yet there is no neat dénouement. Nothing exciting happens at the end. The narrator realizes that what he is searching for is impossible to find. He concludes, “I will never know how she spent her days, where she hid, in whose company she was during the winter months of her first escape and the few weeks in the spring where she made a run for it again. That is her secret. A poor and precious secret that executioners, ordinances, the so-called Occupation authorities, barracks, the camps, History, time—everything that soils and destroys you—will not have been able to take from her.” All of the rest of her life can be pinned down by the records kept by the authorities of occupied France, for the most part, though Dora’s parents never registered her as Jewish and she never wore the yellow star of David on her clothes, as statutes required all Jews in the country to do. This highlights Dora’s status as elusive, apart, impossible to define. She is a sort of Unknown Soldier; something about her remains a mystery for good. And it is the most important part of her, the part that no record can en- compass and no jail can suppress, those evanescent features of her self that constitute her humanity.