Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 19, 2017

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman, by Denis Thériault, translated by Liedewy Hawke

It is a sad fact of life that all of us spend an inordinate amount of time in waiting rooms of one sort or another, but the good thing is that the waiting offers opportunities for more reading.  The important thing is to be prepared, because from what I can see in my recent forays into waiting rooms, the magazines on offer are dire: either trashy gossip mags or golf.  So yes, having the Kindle on standby in the tote is a good strategy, but the book needs to be chosen carefully if the only time it gets read is intermittently in the waiting room.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman was perfect.  I heard about it at Kim’s Reading Matters blog, back in August, and it turned out to be as intriguing as expected.  Kim’s is the consummate review, so I will keep this brief.

Set in Canada, (Thériault is Quebecois) the novella tells the story of Bilodo, who is (as the title says) a lonely postman.  He takes pride in the efficiency with which he does his deliveries, but he has little else in his life except a goldfish called Bill and work colleagues who clearly think he’s a bit odd.  He turns out to be more odd than they know, because he becomes involved in a one-way relationship with a girl called Ségolène, in faraway Guadeloupe. This situation comes about because he is intrigued by the rarity of hand-written letters which – strictly against regulations of course – he takes home to steam open, copy, and then send on their way again in the post.  Ségolène is writing to an older man called Grandpré, an academic who shares her interest in the Japanese form of poetry called haiku. Bilodo’s behaviour is unethical, yes, but the reader’s sympathy has been enlisted because his life is so circumscribed that his activities seem harmless enough.

Bilodo never sees the haiku that Grandpre sends to Ségolène, but he falls in love with her replies, which come regularly.  Things take a darker turn, however, when Bilodo witnesses the death of Grandpré and realises that his fantasy of a love interest is about to be aborted.  But to take on Grandpré’s identity he has to learn to write haiku, and the effects are very droll indeed.  This is, after all, a man who worries about his goldfish’s sensitivities:

He had sushi delivered by the Délicieux Orient, which he took care to eat when Bill wasn’t looking, then continued all night covering the snowy white paper with his scribbles, and all day Sunday, living on sake now, and again all evening, until his head spun, he’d developed a squint, and the pen fell from his fingers.  (Kindle Location 614).

As Bilodo goes on his learning journey with Japanese poetry and culture, Thériault explains the concepts that underlie haiku and the reader sees the yawning chasm between desire and reality.  It is quite poignant really, the creepiness of what’s going on undercut by the banality of Bilodo’s ideas and the loftiness of his ambitions.

He wrote, putting on disc after disc, guzzling tea, while the shadowy hours slipped by. Arpeggios rippled from the koto, sometimes accompanied by a shrillish samisen, sometimes a sho, emphasizing the ethereal tone of a hichiriki or spellbinding nasal singing of a woman. Bilodo wrote as if in a trance, striving with his whole being towards wabi (sober beauty in harmony with nature), immersing himself in the age-old virtues of sabi (simplicity, serenity, solitude). He took an imaginary stroll through the autumnal blaze of Mount Royal and tried to render the contagious languor of the shameless trees, the rustle of leaves startled by the wind, the song of birds about to depart, and the last crunchings of insects. He wrote, seeking the words’ cooperation, struggling to seize them in midair before they scattered, to capture them like butterflies in the page’s net and pin them to the paper. Every so often he achieved a line he considered tolerably good, only to decide five minutes later it rang hollow and feed it to the waste-paper basket. He’d start over, wading in a pond of crumpled cellulose, taking an occasional break to draw a hieroglyph in the sand of the tiny Zen garden or reread a certain haiku by Grandpré or Ségolène, reciting them out loud the better to admire their resonant spontaneity. (Kindle Locations 609-620).

It’s not hard to see that this subterfuge can’t last, but Thériault comes up with a twist at the end that experts in Japanese philosophy might see coming but I did not.  It’s a fable for our time that satirises the fake selves that we depict on social media, while also a kind of elegy for the era of letters in our new age of truncated and impersonal communications.

Thanks for the recommendation, Kim!

Author: Denis Thériault
Title: The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman
Translated from the French by Liedewy Hawke
Publisher: Oneworld Publications, 2017, first published as Le facteur émotif , 2004
ASIN: B01MYRWNL7
Source: Personal library, purchased from Amazon for the Kindle.

Available in print from Fishpond: The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman


Responses

  1. I loved this book. It’s an absolute delight, and I gather there’s a sequel: The Postman’s Fiancee.

    • A sequel! You mean he does it again?!!

      • I haven’t read it yet but I’m wondering if the clue’s in the title.

  2. Ah, I wonder if it’s available in English yet?

  3. I’m just discovering French Canadian literature, courtesy of the innovative QC Fiction imprint of Quebec. Not so sure about this one from what you say, but the quotations have some intriguing moments; I particularly like ‘shameless trees’.

    • I am becoming more and more convinced that it’s the small presses that bring us the most original work.

  4. I loved this book, too, and was forgetting about the sequel until I saw Susan’s comment. It looks like it’s been translated.

    • I’ll look it up…

  5. Thanks for this review, Lisa. It sounds wonderful. What minds some writers have, to conceive of a premise like this!

    • *chuckle* We shall all look at our posties differently now, eh?

  6. This was an unexpected pleasure to read. I didn’t have high hopes for it at the beginning but when he starts writing Haiku I got far more engaged.

    • Yes. It starts off in the same old way, well-written and amusing but basically it’s the lonely-dork-finds-love trope. But then there are intellectual demands made on him (and the reader if like me the reader knows nothing about Japanese poetry and whatnot) and the tone becomes much darker. Having read a few Japanese short stories where a sad and lonely type lashes out with a carving knife, I did wonder what might happen…

  7. What an interesting idea for a story. Wonder where the author got the odea. Had not heard of it. My whole father’s side of the family is from Quebec heritage and yet I know little about the writings.

    • This is the first book I’ve ever read from Quebec, and I suspect that someone in the publishing industry has woken up to the fact that Canadian writing has a whole other aspect to it that we haven’t been exposed to.

    • You reviewed quite a few books from Quebec last year, yes?

  8. I have another book by him on the shelf, it’s called L’iguane.

    This one sounds very good.


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