I hadn’t heard of the French author Patrick Modiano until he came into the limelight when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014. Clearly it was time to explore him.
In the Café of Lost Youth was my first foray into Modiano and I was hugely impressed. It only made sense then that I work my way through his back catalogue…and so zeroed in on After the Circus.
After the Circus (wonderfully translated by Mark Polizotti) is a deeply atmospheric and evocative tale set in Paris. It opens with the narrator (whom we later come to know is called Jean) in a police station, being asked some questions, to which he replies but not always truthfully (for one he tells them that he is an adult when he is actually underage). We do not know why he is being questioned. Actually, neither does Jean himself. All we know is that the police found Jean’s name in an address book.
When Jean emerges from the room, he notices a woman (Gisele) called in for questioning after him. Something about her leaves an impression on his mind. He waits for her at a café and when they get talking, we learn that her name was in that address book as well.
The two are strangely drawn to each other and the rest of the novel charts how they spend their days walking around the streets of Paris; the city, beautifully evoked, and as much a character in this novel as Jean and Gisele.
Jean, meanwhile, is offered a position in a bookshop in Rome, which he welcomes with open arms. He puts across the idea to Gisele who consents to shift with him there. Given his past, Paris remains a murky city for Jean and Rome promises to be the place where he can make a fresh start.
Why is Jean haunted by his past? Probably, it has something to do with his father, who was always involved in shady dealings and is now on the run. The precise nature of these dealings is a mystery.
But there is something more that unsettles Jean. This is where we are introduced to a few more characters, Pierre Ansart and Jacques de Bavieres – acquaintances of Gisele – who convince the couple to run an errand for them. The purpose of this errand and its ultimate consequences remains vague, peculiar and strange.
This then is typical Modiano fare. His novels are impressionistic, suffused with atmosphere, longing, and always pointing to how imperfect memories are.
Throughout this novel a continuous sense of unease prevails. Is Gisele really who she seems to be? And as the two of them plan to escape Paris and shift to Rome, will they finally leave their demons behind?