Paris is ever present in “In the Cafe of Lost Youth”. It is gray and steeped in memory. Like an old wartime photo of Poland. The kind of photo that you think of when the mind is going blank and you acknowledge time is running right by you inexorably. But in a good-sad way.
The book is part noir, part Rubik’s cube. And I am not even sure there is a full resolution. The book’s lasting impression is the elusive descriptions of Paris that permeate the book. Even after you’ve turned the last page the images stay.
Patrick Modiano might be constructing a story that relies on memory and perspective to piece together an unverifiable identity of a person, much like how sometimes even we try to recreate our own personal histories.
Cities of Memories
Our memories are what create our identity. Supplanting old memories with new ones lets others create a completely new image of ourselves which in turn makes it easy to recast ourselves in a new light for that person from that moment. That is probably why most of us choose a location change to test out our new look. Nobody knows the old you. The new you is the regular you from that time on.
But when a city has changed its character how do you react to it? Who do you question why the shops have changed and why the temperature is different. When you revisit old haunts and find a newly popped up store you want to kick it in the shins because you want your old friendly store back. When you see older and tired versions of your sprightly childhood friends there is a knob you have to tweak in your memory unit to adjust to reality.
Spending some phase of your adulthood in a completely alien city is a transformative experience. You experience intense pangs of loneliness and disconnect sometimes. When you want to go get something to eat but there is no one to accompany you and you are standing at a crosswalk having a conversation with yourself about eating options. It tricks you into associating memories with spaces. The sunlit steps of Trafalgar Square always remind me of failure. I sat there for quite a long time processing failure staring at British locals and excited tourists. Mumbai rains are funny. It was during a deluge that a friend and I landed in Mumbai late at night with a ton of luggage and a couple of thousand rupees in our pockets and no place to stay. Every day for a month a motley crew of us would head out after work to search for apartments in the monsoon rain, taking care not to soil our only pair of trousers and shoes that we had to wear to work. Chennai for a long time was just afternoons. Stopovers in a long annual journey to the northern part of the country. Chennai was just Central and Egmore and platforms and autorickshaws.
The casualty in all these is an absence of permanent memories. I do not have a single picture of me from my time in Mumbai or London or Scotland. But I am being hypocritic. I do not have many pictures of myself in many other places though that was a matter of choice. Who knew, maybe I might have taken some had I had a chance when younger.
This is probably why I compulsively click photos nowadays of cityscapes. I want to capture them and record my passage. I do not want to deceive myself with unreliable memories. I want to hold cities to how they were and not change their look because they play an important part of who I am. How can I justify who I have become if they are not faithful to my memories?
Also, how can you argue with cities? My excuse for preferring thong sandals to lace-up shoes is Singapore. Analyze that.
Sometimes I still rely on cities to convey my mood. I can hold hands and take her through crowded sidewalks pushing against humanity and guarding against cars. The city lights help me. They are my wingmen and make me seem in control without any fuss. I look up the weather in advance and act chivalrous and offer warm clothes. I take her to spaces redolent with coffee beans and cream. At such times, all I have to do is remain quiet and let the city talk to us. At some point later in life, I’ll search out these blurry pictures and we’ll smile fondly remembering the walks. And the city. And of how we lost our youth there.