Monday Book Review: “The Black Notebook” by Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano’s latest novel, The Black Notebook (translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti) takes place in 1960’s Paris and revolves around the murder of a Moroccan diplomat. Yet the murder does not form the main narrative of the piece. Rather, the story is told in the first person by a man named Jean who only associated with those connected to the crime but not actually involved in it, or indeed even aware of his associates’ involvement until decades later.

Jean is now an old man trying to remember the Paris of that time, aided by the titular notebook. Throughout his life he would take notes in the book not necessarily to aid as reminders but to freeze particular moments in time, knowing full well that the Paris of his youth will change into the Paris of his later years. It is from this notebook as well as the case file given to him by a retired police detective that he puts together his memoir of the time, in particular his involvement with a young woman who went by the name Dannie.

Though the book does not explicitly detail the romantic nature of their relationship, it is clear that Jean and Dannie were quite close. Yet she, as well as others involved with the crime, clearly kept secrets from Jean about her past. Still, none of this mattered to Jean. As he reiterated throughout the book, all that mattered to him was the moment.

Because of this take on life the book passes by with a dreamlike quality to it. Images come and go quickly, to give details of a time that no longer exists. Even the book itself is short, with the English translation reaching only 131 pages. But the narrative is dense with Jean’s philosophy and moral outlook on life, as life happens to him. When he learns more about Dannie and her associates Jean does grow more concerned but aside from a few bursts of inquisitiveness maintains his policy of non-interference.

The book gives no conclusive narrative to what actually happened the night of the crime, nor is that the point. It gives more details as it nears the end, but it feels not so much a dramatic story arc but the nature of the memories as they come to Jean in his retelling of the events. The murder isn’t the focus of the story. The memoir of a Paris that’s only a memory to a man and his notebook is.

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