2015 Book Reviews

‘Lacombe, Lucien’ and the Early Novels of Patrick Modiano: ‘La Ronde de Nuit (The Night Watch)’


Editor’s Note: This is part three of Jaime Grijalba’s four-part series “The Occupation Quadrilogy: ‘Lacombe, Lucien’ and the Early Novels of Patrick Modiano.”

This second novel is what certainly feels the closest to Louis Malle’s wonderful film Lacombe, Lucien, as the protagonist is a young man that works for French (and immigrant) collaborationists in an occupied Paris. His mother has left way before he could notice anything wrong, and thus he is alone in a completely empty city. People have fled to the countryside or to nearby countries where the atrocities of war won’t find them. The hordes of military forces that storm the city go unmentioned (a consistent theme of Modiano), as our young protagonist is only confronted by the moral duality of the highly-organized French Resistance and the equally systematic French Collaborationists.

La Ronde de Nuit starts “in medias res” as the protagonist, who could surely be the same age as Malle’s Lucien, is already embedded in the hellish landscape of the organization led by Khédive, an amoral and reprehensible criminal due to his own hate towards the police. He forms a committee of French outcasts to be an alternative police force that mostly interrogates and kills resistance members while simultaneously trafficking hard-to-find products in occupied France. All the while, they send our feeble protagonist to search homes of rich people for money and pieces of art worthy of selling to German officials.

This immoral organization that takes advantage of the weak position of France (and receives protection from German forces) is a collection of the worst members of society: smugglers, whores, thieves, killers and torturers. A young and diligent Modiano composes a hellish description of a party located in a building that serves as the base of operations, as screams and shrieks of a tortured man from the resistance can be heard. Particularly impressive is a passage involving a blood-stained carpet where everyone had recently danced lusciously.

There’s a similar conflict as one presented in Lacombe, Lucien when our protagonist is revealed to be a double agent and commanded by Khédive to offer help to the Resistance. Obviously, the young man lives in a constant state of conflict, as he finds that one side does “the right thing” and the other side provides financial support. Lucien Lacombe feels the same pressure as he falls in love with the daughter of a Jewish tailor; he’s a reluctant collaborationist, and thus he must come to grips with what he must do and what he was ordered to do. Lucien is urged to enter the band of the collaborationists (much to the chagrin of his mother) because of the rejection he received from the Resistance members, while a central theme of La Ronde de Nuit revolves around the young man wondering what his mother would think if she saw what he did. The novel reaches its climax once the final mission is assigned (killing Khédive), as the other side seeks the identity of the Resistance leader, a fictional character the protagonist assigned to himself: the Princess of Lamballe.

Jaime Grijalba (@jaimegrijalba) is from Chile and has been writing about film, literature, videogames and culture for the past six years. He’s also preparing his first feature-length film, since he’s a filmmaker too (or wants to be at least).