Patrick Modiano’s moody novel, After the Circus is narrated by a much older man who recalls a mysterious time in Paris when he was eighteen years old. Many authors would have turned this tale into a predictable coming of age story, but Modiano’s novel remains a sad elegy to an all too brief, haunting time.
The novel begins with the narrator being questioned at police headquarters about his life and activities. Right away an air of confusion enters the narrative. The man who asks the questions names a café that the narrator is supposed to frequent, but he’s never been there. Does the interrogator have the wrong man?
Then he mentioned the names of a man and a woman and asked if I knew them. I answered no. He told me to think very carefully. If I didn’t tell the truth, there could be serious consequences. The threat was delivered in a calm, indifferent voice. No, really, I didn’t know those two individuals. He typed my answer, then handed me the sheet, at the bottom of which was written: “Seen and agreed to.” I didn’t bother looking over my deposition and signed with a ballpoint pen that was lying on the desk.
This sense of indifference and disconnection which begins immediately with this interview continues throughout the novel and permeates the story. The narrator asks why he’s been questioned and he’s told that “your name was in someone’s address book.” Again that vagueness which nonetheless determines the narrator’s fate–a randomness which, as it turns out, becomes a major incident in his life.
On the way out of the office, the narrator spies a young woman in her twenties. She’s next to be interrogated, and the narrator makes the snap decision to wait for her in a nearby café. They meet and chat, and then she asks a “favor.”
At Place du Châtelet, she wanted to take the metro. It was rush hour. We stood squeezed together near the doors. At every station, the riders getting off pushed us onto the platform. Then we got back on with the new passengers. She leaned her head on my shoulder and said with a smile that “no one could find us in this crowd.”
At the Gare du Nord metro stop, we were carried along in the flood of travelers heading for the commuter trains. We crossed through the train station lobby, and in the checkroom she opened a locker and pulled out a black leather suitcase.
I carried the suitcase, which was rather heavy. It occurred to me that it contained more than just clothes.
And so begins the mystery of Gisèle who soon moves into the narrator’s apartment. She proceeds to introduce the narrator to a stream of new acquaintances, and she begins gathering up a range of belongings which are scattered in various locations. As she takes the narrator through her circle, more questions emerge about Gisèle, and it becomes clear that she’s mixed up with some shady characters. But Gisèle isn’t the only mystery here. The narrator’s father has moved to Switzerland “to live out his days,” while the narrator’s father’s mysterious business associate, Grabley, is busy destroying papers relating to some peculiar shady business dealings. Grabley is considering dumping these files “down a manhole he’d spotted on Rue de l’Arcade.” All these trappings of mystery, disorientation, and flight yield the sense of flux, that time is running out.
After the Circus (and the meaning of the title is finally revealed) is a wonderfully atmospheric book. Don’t expect all the answers here, for the book mirrors life–everything is not tied off neatly. Instead this tale, which is told years later by a now middle-aged man, effectively recreates how things sometimes don’t make sense when we’re young. We don’t know the right questions to ask; our naiveté hobbles us. Now the narrator looks back at this period of his life, it’s too late to ask the questions that emerge in retrospect. Those with the answers are dead. The narrator doesn’t offer explanations to fill in the gaps. We can only speculate.
I was the traveler who boards a departing train and finds himself in the company of four strangers. And he wonders whether he hasn’t got on the wrong train. But no matter … In his compartment, the others start making conversation with him.
With its interrogations and hints that the narrator’s father lived a life that “in certain periods resembled a hunt in which he was the prey,” at first the story could seem to be set in WWII France and yet it’s not; it’s the sixties. This lack of firm grounding in time just adds to the mystery of Gisèle and her relationship with the young, impressionable and naïve narrator who is forever shaped by this brief time.
What I had lived through in my childhood and the few years following, up to my meeting Gisèle, gently peeled off of me in strips, dissolved; now and then, I even made a small efforts to retain a few scraps before they vanished into thin air.
This won’t be my last Modiano novel. Suggestions for another are welcome.
Review copy. Translated by Mark Polizzotti.