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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Dreaming at Evanescent Cafés

(click here for the Romanian version)

À la moitié du chemin de la vraie vie, nous étions environnés d'une sombre mélancolie, qu'ont exprimée tant de mots railleurs et tristes, dans le café de la jeunesse perdue.

[At the halfway of real life, we were surrounded by a dark melancholy, that so many mocking and sad words have expressed, in the café of lost youth]

A friend told me the other day about a book I hadn't heard of before. The title sounded great, Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue, In the Café of Lost Youth. This began to look kind of Lost Generation, wow! The author, Patrick Modiano (born in the same year I was born, 1945) has anyway the talent of choosing very seductive titles for the books he writes (take for instance the Rue des Boutiques Obscures, isn't this a beguiler?)

I did a search on the web to find a bookstore having Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue, and the next day I went downtown to buy the book. I started to read it while the bus was taking me back home and I was immediately hooked. However, two short stories by Akutagawa, were waiting at home to be read. Eventually I read them all in parallel.

Actually the narrative technique from Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue was up to a point alike to that from In the Grove of Akutagawa. Also, the Parisian café from the book of Modiano (a fictional one, invented by the author, named Le Condé and placed in the vicinity of the Odéon), called in my mind another café from another book by another author: Café Kundera (also an author invention) from the Istanbul imagined by Elif Shafak. More or less the same kind of people populating both places, the same atmosphere. I found it in some places in Bucharest, also.

Frankly,  the first chapter of the book of Modiano made me enthusiast, but the following chapters didn't seem exceptional. Let me try to explain: In the Grove by Akutagawa is a killer story, it means it would be a shame to die before reading it. The book of Elif Shafak, on the other hand, is maybe not a killer book, still it'd be a shame not to read it (by the way, its title is The Bastard of Istanbul).

Well, Dans le café de la jeunesse perdue is far from a killer book, but don't get me wrong, there is authentic value in it. It's the life of a young woman (whom we know mostly by her nick, Louki), narrated by four different persons (one of them being herself). As I said, the story of Akutagawa uses a similar mechanism. Only here, in the book of Modiano, is different: each narrator brings a bit of light about Louki's life, while mostly adding more and more shadows. The resulting portrait is not contradictory (like in Akutagawa's), rather Cubist (it was the friend who recommended me the book that used this term, Cubist, and I found it very to-the-point). The plot is frail, because her life is frail. She is Louki du Néant, while also the café, Le Condé, is du Néant, with its patrons - all of them, young or old, lost children of a Paris that devours anything and anybody. And this book is ultimately a Cubist portrait of Paris, frail city, ghostly, lost city itself. An author who's not describing Paris -  he is breathing Paris. The key word here is evanescence: Louki, the surrounding people, the café, the city, all of them evanescent, inventing references on Parisian streets, to get the illusion of reality, looking on the Parisian streets for obscure zones, black holes, to take refuge from themselves.

Encore aujourd'hui, il m'arrive d'entendre, le soir, une voix qui m'appelle par mon prénom, dans la rue. Une voix rauque. Elle traîne un peu sur les syllabes et je la reconnais tout de suite : la voix de Louki. Je me retourne, mais il n'y a personne. Pas seulement le soir, mais au creux de ces après-midi d'été où vous ne savez plus très bien en quelle année vous êtes. Tout va recommencer comme avant. Les mêmes jours, les mêmes nuits, les mêmes lieux, les mêmes rencontres. L'Éternel Retour.

Eventually Louki will just vanish in nothingness, with all of them. Does it matter? We all are vanishing, while reading the story, dreaming of Louki, dreaming of Paris, inventing illusory references, looking for black holes to hide. Looking on other reviews, in search of some solid meaning on an evanescent, ghostly book. And what we find in the end are a few verses from Baudelaire:

Paris change! mais rien dans ma mélancolie
N'a bougé! palais neufs, échafaudages, blocs,
Vieux faubourgs, tout pour moi devient allégorie
Et mes chers souvenirs sont plus lourds que des rocs

(Patrick Modiano)

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