villa triste book coverReviewed by Nina Longfield

Imagine a time of personal discord in which nothing seemed to make sense and everything pointed towards uncertainty and doom. It’s a difficult picture to imagine yet Patrick Modiano did a superb job creating internal conflict within Victor Chmara, his main character in the novel Villa Triste. Chmara is a young man, only eighteen, on the run from his fears. It is both real and imagined conflicts battling within Chmara forcing him to flee Paris. The setting is the early 1960s France and Chmara is afraid of the growing conflict in Algeria. He fears being drafted into military service. He fears conditions will worsen so he sets himself up at a summer destination in eastern France bordering Switzerland. At the slightest hint of worsening conditions, Chmara plans to flee across the border for his next destination of supposed safety. In this holiday setting, Chmara meets Yvonne, a young actress, and Doctor Meinthe who lead Chmara into a world filled with beautiful and eccentric people and their rather debauched lifestyles.

Patrick Modiano’s Villa Triste is a complex multi-layered novel weaving past and present together to create a whole picture. At the center of the story is Victor Chmara. He is an unreliable narrator. He confides his lies to the reader yet the other characters do not know his truths. Not that the other characters are without their own lies. The reader never fully knows if each character is who they say they are or merely playing a part through a long holiday.

As intriguing as Villa Triste is, it is also difficult engaging with the story since the characters are all secretive and standoffish. I never got a complete feeling of knowing Victor Chmara. It seems, whenever the action got too close to revealing Chmara’s true thoughts for that moment, the narration would suddenly slip into reflection thus pulling the reader abruptly out of the instant. At times, these shifts could be off-putting. I’d find myself devouring pages then all of a sudden I was thrust from the story line like a door slamming shut in my face. With these shifts, the story would settle briefly into the narrator’s contemporary voice in which he is looking back on the past with misty eyes for what once was.

Villa Triste is a novel I thoroughly enjoyed despite the difficulties I had with engagement. I never truly found fondness for any one character, though perhaps a slight twinge of liking for Doctor Meinthe as he seemed the only character who at times popped from the page as being real. I admire the story structure and Modiano’s skill at weaving Chmara’s past and reflective present narration together. Modiano deftly captures reflections of lost youth creating a haunted story of one looking back with nostalgia and perhaps a hint of regret.

Although I liked this well written and smoothly translated novel, I gave Villa Triste a mid-range rating because this is not a novel for every reader. This novel requires attention and thought. It is a story that lingers long after the last page is read. It is a story for one who might enjoy the occasional international film, for one who might relish a thoughtful glimpse into a haunted young soul, or for one who takes pleasure in non-linear thought-provoking narratives.

Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.

Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Other Press No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.