Do You Know China?
At what point in my life did I meet Henri Marignan? Oh, I couldn’t have been twenty at the time. I think of him often. Sometimes he seems to have been one of my father’s multiple incarnations. I don’t know what became of him. Our first meeting? It occurred at the back of a narrow, coral-red bar on Boulevard des Capucines, the Hole in the Wall. We were the last patrons. Marignan, sitting at a table next to mine, ordered a “rice whiskey,” and after taking a sip he said to the bartender:
“It doesn’t taste like it did in China.”
So I asked him point-blank:
“Do you know China?”
We chatted until four in the morning. About China, naturally, where Marignan had lived for a while before the war. He could still sketch a detailed map of Shanghai on a napkin, and that evening he did one for me. I wanted to know what chances a Westerner had, these days, of entering that enigmatic country and exploring it freely. He hesitated slightly, then pronounced in a solemn voice:
“I believe it’s possible.”
He stared at me steadily.
“Would you like to try it with me?”
“Of course,” I said.
From that moment on, we saw each other daily.
Marignan was over sixty, but looked twenty years younger. Tall, with square shoulders, he wore his hair in a brush-cut. There was no trace of puffiness in his face. The smooth line of his eyebrows, nose, and chin impressed me. Sometimes an expression of helplessness shot through his blue eyes. He always wore double-breasted suits and evidently had a predilection for shoes with very elastic crepe soles that gave him a supple gait.
After a while, I learned who I was dealing with. The information didn’t come from him, since he spoke of his past only when asked a direct question.
At twenty-six, he had been sent to Shanghai by a news agency. He started a daily paper that was published in two editions, French and Chinese. He was sought after as an adviser to the Ministry of Communications under Chiang Kai-shek, and there were rumors that Madame Chiang had succumbed to the charms of Henri Marignan. He had remained in China for seven years.
Back in France, he had published a memoir, Lost Shanghai, of which I can recite entire pages by heart. In it, he depicts the China of the thirties, with its proliferation of real and fake generals, its bankers, its funeral processions that roam the streets while playing “Viens Poupoule,” its thirteen-year-old chanteuses with their shrill voices and pink stockings embroidered with huge yellow butterflies, its stink of opium and rot, and the humid night air that coats shoes and clothing in fungus. The book renders a vibrant and nostalgic homage to Shanghai, the city of his youth. In the years that followed, spurred on by his love of intrigue, he frequented both the Communist International Brigades and the fascist Cagoule. From 1940 to 1945, he undertook mysterious “missions” between Paris, Vichy, and Lisbon. He dropped out of sight, officially speaking, in Berlin, in April 1945. That was Henri Marignan.
I would go see him on Avenue de New York, at number 52, I think, one of the last buildings before the Trocadéro gardens. The apartment belonged to a certain Geneviève Catelain, a refined, vaporous blonde, whose eyes gave off glints of emerald. Sitting with him on the living room sofa, she would say to him when I entered:
“Here’s Monsieur Modiano, your accomplice.”
More than once, he arranged to see me on Avenue de New York at around 10 p.m., and each time, there were others in the living room, as if for a celebration or cocktail party. Geneviève Catelain flitted from group to group; Marignan kept to himself. As soon as he saw me, he came forward, stiff-chested and with a bounding step.
“Let’s go get some air,” he would say.
We wandered aimlessly through Paris. One evening, he showed me the Chinese quarter around the Gare de Lyon, near Avenue Daumesnil. The Arabs had supplanted the Chinese, but there still remained, in Passage Gatbois, a hotel with a sign saying Red Dragon. A “Chinese” restaurant occupied the ground floor. We went upstairs. A large room with walls covered in quilted burgundy velvet, some of it in tatters. A single bulb lit the three dirty windows and gray parquet floor. Some slats were missing. In a corner were piled-up chairs, a trunk, and an old sideboard. The place served as a junk room.
“It’s falling apart,” Marignan sighed.
He explained that during the Occupation, it was the only opium den in Paris. He had gone there one evening with the actress Luisa Ferida.
Sometimes we would make a detour to the Pagode on Rue de Babylone, or stop in front of that large Chinese house on Rue de Courcelles, on which a plaque stated that it had been built in 1928 by a certain Fernand Bloch. We wandered through the galleries of the Guimet and Cernuschi museums and went for walks in Boulogne, in the Asian gardens of Albert Kahn. Marignan was lost in thought.
I walked him back to Avenue de New York and tried to find out what bound him to the enigmatic Geneviève Catelain.
“A very, very old romance,” he confided one evening. “From back when I still officially existed and wasn’t the ghost I am today. You know I died in ’45, right?”
How had he managed to survive and not be recognized? He said that people’s looks change after age forty, and that he had earned a little money writing children’s stories under the pseudonym Uncle Ronnie. He wrote them in English, and “Uncle Ronnie’s Stories” sold in Great Britain and even the United States. He also did a little art dealing on the side.
But the plan of leaving for China preoccupied him. In the middle of the street, he would suddenly ask:
“Do you think you’ll be able to stand the climate?”
“Are you prepared to spend a year there?”
“Have you been vaccinated for diphtheria, Patrick?”
Finally, he let me in on his plan. For the past several years, he had been clipping newspaper and magazine photos of Premier Chou En-lai and his entourage, taken at diplomatic banquets or welcoming ceremonies for foreign dignitaries. He had repeatedly watched the newsreels from when the American president visited China. Standing to the left of Chou En-lai, so close that their shoulders touched, was always the same smiling man. And that man was someone Marignan was certain he had known back in Shanghai.
From Family Record by Patrick Modiano. Translated by Mark Polizzotti. Published by Yale University Press in 2019. Reproduced with permission.
Internationally renowned author Patrick Modiano has been awarded, among many other distinctions, the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. Mark Polizzotti is the translator of more than fifty books from the French, including nine by Modiano.