- Remembering Dora Bruder:Patrick Modiano's Surrealist Encounter with the Postmemorial Archive
"But where does the outside commence? This question is the question of the archive."--Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever
French novelist Patrick Modiano's oeuvre is obsessed with les années noires of the German occupation and Vichy regime.1 Since he debuted in 1968 with the angrily hysterical pastiche of 1940s French antisemitism, La place de l'étoile, Modiano has become one of the most prolific and celebrated writers on the contemporary French scene. His works—including Les boulevards de ceinture (1972), Rue des boutiques obscures (awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1978), and Chien de printemps (1993), to name only a few of his approximately 30 novels—recreate shadowy atmospheres of wartime deception, disorientation, danger, fear, and claustrophobia. And, typically, they end on notes of radical undecidability—so much so that French historian Henri Rousso wrote in 1994 that, for Modiano, "the Occupation has lost all historical status. It is a puzzle that must above all not be pieced together, as truth filters through the empty spaces" (Rousso 152; my translation). Much of Modiano's writing seems to embody the schizophrenic loss of historical consciousness and experience that, however differently, Fredric Jameson, Jean Baudrillard and others have argued to be a defining feature of postmodernity.2 Or, to adopt Dominick LaCapra's diagnostic idiom, we may see in Modiano's stylized novelistic iterations of France's involvement in the Shoah the symptomatology of an interminable "acting out." While wartime "memory" is arguably Modiano's central, obsessional concern, in so much of his work it appears unmoored from its historical referent. Taken together, Modiano's works seem doomed serially to reconstruct France's wartime past as a nebulous atmosphere of anxiety. Modiano evokes the past exquisitely, but as seductively terrifying, and irresolvable. In this, Modiano's novels are paradigmatic of the close relationship prominent theoreticians of trauma such as Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman have posited between trauma and literature: according to trauma theory, literature inscribes—even more, it embodies and transmits—trauma because it responds to events that it can only gesture toward obliquely and cannot represent.3
Modiano's 1997 hybrid text Dora Bruder—it draws on biography, autobiography, documentary, memoir, and detective novel (and this list could be extended)—continues Modiano's tortured personal involvement with the past, in particular with France's war years; however, the book also marks an emphatic turn toward a more direct engagement with history and referentiality. One can read Modiano's reorientation as part of a wider engagement in France with Vichy and the Shoah during the years he was at work on Dora Bruder. A series of scandalous disclosures and public trials fueled an intense new phase in France's confrontation with its ambiguous past: the discovery in 1991 at the Ministry of Veteran's Affairs of a file of some 150,000 names and addresses compiled during the occupation and used by Parisian police to round up Jews;4 the projected trial and then, in June 1993, the murder of René Bousquet, the head of French police during the peak years of deportation, 1942-43; the 1994 trial for crimes against humanity of Paul Touvier, an intelligence officer under Klaus Barbie in the pro-Nazi paramilitary Vichy police force, the Milice; and the scandalous re-emergence of Shoah denial with the publication of Roger Garaudy's Les Mythes fondateurs de la politique israélienne in 1996.5
Modiano's interest in Dora Bruder and, eventually, the book bearing her name, both begin with an encounter with the archive. In the book's opening sentence, Modiano informs us that eight years prior (we later learn it was in 1988) he came across a missing persons announcement in the wartime paper Paris Soir, dated 31 December 1941. The announcement, ostensibly placed by Dora's parents, functions like a horrific version of the fait-divers that launch so many detective narratives. The annonce so interpolated Modiano that he spent eight years trying, as it were, to answer it by searching for traces of the girl's existence. Dora Bruder relates and self-reflexively meditates on this...