The past is read only

The Rocks, Sydney

Before Samsung and Apple, I purchased a Hewlett Packard handheld PDA thinking that I could use it for my jottings. Sadly, that  has since become a white elephant lying somewhere amongst my possessions. Although I possess an iPhone that has an expansive storage space, I resort  to notepads or scrap papers  for  scribbling my thoughts and ideas. A notebook serves well as a writing pad for  fragments of my ideas, doodlings, bits and pieces of information about everything else and also titles of  books that I need to acquire or look up. There are times when I cannot quite make out my own notes as they are too sketchy and unintelligible and at other times when I revisit what I have written , it feels a little dreamlike.

The Black Notebook written by Patrick Modiano  has been translated into English from French by Mark Polizzotti. The story is  about Jean, a writer who discovers a set of notes that sets him on a journey through Paris in search of a lost past.  He tries to recall Dannie , his former girlfriend from years ago, a mysterious woman with  multiple pseudonyms and she seemed to hang out with gangsters who lived in the Hotel Unic in rue du Montparnasse. Dannie had lived under the name of Mireille Sampierry and she could be involved with a possible homicide. When she disappeared, Jean was summoned by a certain Langlais who was conducting the investigation about the possible homicide. Jean retraces the nocturnal footsteps he made decades earlier. As he remembers it, he always felt on his guard in that neighbourhood, could he possibly have left behind a double? He knows it wasn’t a dream. The proof is that he still has this black notebook that contains names, telephone numbers, appointments and short texts etc .

‘On one page of my black notebook I had written : “Country house, With Dannie.” Nothing more.

  “ Country house with Dannie.” I hadn’t recorded the name of the village. Leafing through the black notebook, I experience two contradictory feelings. If these pages are lacking in precise details, I tell myself it’s because nothing surprised me back then

Youthful unconcern? But I read certain phrases, certain names, certain indications, and it seems to me I was sending out coded signals to the future. Yes, it’s as if I wanted to leave clues, in black and white, that would help me clarify at some later date what I’d been living through at the time without really understanding it. Signals keyed blindly, in total confusion. And I’d have to wait years and years before I could decipher them.’

He and Dannie went to a country house at La Barberie and he had left his manuscript in the sitting room.

‘NOW AND THEN OVER THE YEARS, I HAVE THOUGHT about retrieving that manuscript, the way you recover a souvenir – one of those objects connected with a moment in your life, like a dried flower or four-leaf clover. But I no longer knew where the country house was. And I was overcome by lethargy and a vague apprehension when leafing through my old black notebook; moreover, it took me a long while to discover the name of the village and the phone number, written as they were in such tiny script.

Today , I’m no longer afraid of that notebook. It helps me to “scan my past”, and that expression makes me smile. It was the title of a novel, A Man Scans His Past, that I’d come across in the library of the house – several shelves of books, next to one of the windows in the sitting room. The past? No, it ‘s not about the past, but about episodes in a timeless, idealized life, which I wrest page by page from my drab current existence to give it some light and shadow. This afternoon, we are in the here and now, it’s raining, people and things are plunged in grey, and I’m impatiently waiting for night when everything will stand out more sharply, thanks to those same contrasts of shadow and light.

            The other night, driving through Paris, I was moved by those lights and shadows, by the different varieties of street lights and lamp posts, which I felt were sending me signals from the avenues or street corners. It was the same feeling you get from staring at a lit window: a feeling of both presence and absence. Behind the glass pane the room is empty, but someone left the light on. For me, there has never been a present or a past. Everything blends together, as in that empty room where , every night, a light shines. I often dream that I’ve found my manuscript, I walk into the sitting room with its black-and-white tiled floor and rummage through the drawers under the bookshelves.

                I am learning French and it has taken me forever. I certainly hope to read Patrick Modiano’s novels in French one day.  Click

Jean’s memory about Paris is akin to my memory about Sydney, a city where I used to spend my growing years in. Sydney is a young and modern city thus it does not have the grandeur and old charm that Paris has to offer but  it is a city that means  a lot  to me.

Harbour Bridge, Sydney

            For a decade or so, whenever I returned to Sydney, nostalgia hit me. As years go by, Sydney has changed its landscape so much so that the connection I have with the city is becoming increasingly distant. Nonetheless I recall possessing the melancholic feeling years ago when I was up in Collins Bookstore at Broadway (near Central Railway Sydney) looking down  at City Road,  the road that I walked plenty of times during my varsity years. During my  trip to Sydney in October 2015 , although nostalgia no longer hit me as much as it used to, like Jean in The Black Notebook, I tried to retrace my steps  around Circular Quay and locate the kiosk where I used to work part-time selling fresh bread and lamington cakes to early commuters. I also walked along Glebe Point Road where I used to catch films at Vahalla Cinema. It was another lifetime and it feels like a dream. But you know it is not a dream. How I used to take youth for granted.  

Sydney Opera House
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