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Author: Patrick Modiano

Translator: John Cullen

Publisher: Other Press New York

ISBN: 978-159051767-3

Although Patrick Modiano may not be a household name to English readers, he is quite a renowned French novelist. He was the recipient of the 2012 Austrian State Prize for European Literature, the 2010 Prix mondial Cino Del Duca from the Institut de France for lifetime achievement, the 1978 Prix Goncourt for Missing Person and the 1972 Grand Prix du Roman de l'Académie Français for Ring Roads. In 2014 he received the Nobel Prize in Literature and at the time the Nobel Committee stated that it was awarded to him “for the art of memory with which he has evoked the most ungraspable human destinies and uncovered the life-worked of the occupation.”

And this is exactly how you can sum up Villa Triste that focuses on a young man, Victor Chmara who recounts his memories of one summer when he was eighteen after fleeing Paris to avoid conscription, which was at the time when France was entangled with Algeria which was fighting for its independence.

Victor had escaped to Albigny, an affluent provincial town near the French-Swiss border, where he met a beautiful twenty-two year old actress, Yvonne Jacquet and her friend Dr. René Meinthe. Victor and Yvonne become lovers and thanks to Dr. Meinthe all three frequent various social bourgeois events that take place during the summer months.

One of these events involved a competition of elegance and the winner would receive the Houligant Cup. Victor believed that should Yvonne win the cup, this would be her ticket to stardom and he was determined to make sure she became a famous movie actress in the USA. Victor pictured Yvonne as Marilyn Monroe and he Arthur Miller and once they arrived in America, Yvonne would devote herself to the cinema and he to writing. The promoter of the event was Daniel Hendrickx, a well-known ski champion who was quite a lady's man and competed with Victor in gaining the affection of Yvonne.

Although plot wise nothing really happens in this novel, nonetheless, Modiano illustrates his mastery in weaving an engaging story peopled with mysterious characters which incidentally is quite characteristic of his work that delve into the puzzle of identity. When Victor questioned Yvonne about her childhood, she avoided answering. As for Dr. Meinthe, from time-to-time mysterious men appear on his door step prompting him to state that he is under pressure to perform certain tasks. There are some hints concerning Victor but he remains a baffling character throughout the novel.

Also at play here is the theme of nostalgia where we watch Victor looking back at the tiny details of his youthful experience and trying to make sense as to what actually happened. As with Victor, it is quite amazing how many of us can recall events in our lives with vivid strong mental images particularly during the key critical years of our early lives and some of which may have been quite painful, such as loss.