Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Books – The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman, by Denis Thériault

I’ve mentioned before how I enjoy going into a bookshop and choosing a book blind, knowing nothing about it. I suppose when I do this what I’m basically doing is judging books by their cover, but I’ve personally always felt that, however effective and true the idiom is for metaphorical situations, when it actually comes down to books themselves, you can tell a lot about a novel by its cover and its title. That’s not to say that I might be missing plenty novels by judging books by their covers. For example, take Where Rainbows End, which I read on kindle having been recommended the book by a friend. I only saw the paperback cover when I Wikipediaed it while writing my review of it in order to check the spelling of the author’s name. My immediate thought was that, if I’d seen the cover before reading it, I’d have been put off the book at once. As it was I really enjoyed it. Nonetheless, I imagine publishers have a fair idea of what they’re doing when they market and design books in a particular way. So I picked up The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman because I liked the minimalist cover design and because the title is beautifully poetic.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman was written by French Canadian Denis Thériault in 2005 and translated by Liedewy Hawke in 2008. The novel centres on Bilodo, a youngish postman who has become obsessed with intercepting the letters he sends. He devours the letters of Ségolène, who communicates with her friend Gaston Grandpré in only Haikus. Bilodo finds him bizarrely falling in love with Ségolène, who he has never met and never spoken to, and lives solely for the days he can read the letters she sends for someone else. And then something happens to disturb Bilodo’s routine.

It’s been several days since I finished The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman and I still haven’t decided whether or not I liked it. There’s no doubt that it’s an interesting idea, that Bilodo is a clever character, and that it’s well written – well, mostly; I have my doubts about the Haikus, but more on that anon. Nonetheless, there is something unsettling about the novel – something intentionally unsettling, I have no doubt, but I’m still not entirely sure whether I thought it worked.

It’s a very short book, a mere 108 pages, and something about its intense and concise nature makes it seem all the more poetic. Beyond the Haikus themselves, the novel has an odd sort of lyricism, perhaps simply because the idea itself is so simple and poetic. Besides, while Bilodo is intercepting post, while you as reader become increasingly aware that you probably ought to view him as creepy, the care with which he does this, and the neat way in which he lives, with his lonely life and his interest in calligraphy, makes him seem almost a Romantic figure instead. 

Let’s return to the issue of the Haikus, a great many of which appear in the novel. I found them oddly stilted at times, and was never sure whether to think of this as poor writing or as Thériault trying to capture the voices of amateur poets. I think perhaps that this may be in part a translation issue, or simply my issue. Haikus often tend to go a little over my head. For example, let’s take the first Haiku that appears in the novel:

Under clear water
the newborn baby
swims like a playful otter

This doesn’t seem overly impressive to me, but I am aware that this may be simply because Haikus, or at least these sort of Haikus, are simply not my cup of tea. I also found the more erotic Haikus that appear later in the novel quite clumsy and at times hideously cringe-worthy. These are supposed to be incredibly beautiful poems, and fall short. Or at least, they are supposed to seem incredibly beautiful to Bilodo, but I suppose that’s a different thing altogether.

I think, then, that for the most part I was more convinced by the narrative that by the poetry it contained. Ségolène, who is only glimpsed through her poetry, remains a mystery, but Bilodo is a lovely character. Despite his strange actions, you find yourself sympathising with him, and his thoughts and actions are related to us in a vivid and beautiful writing style. And yet still, I haven’t decided whether or not I like this novel.

What I found most strange and unsettling about The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman was the ending (if you’ve read any of my other reviews, you may be spotting a pattern here…). When I closed the book my main feeling was one of bemusement. I personally felt the novel’s close ought to have been set up a little earlier. It seems to me that the novel almost changes genre at page 80 or so. It’s bizarre. I mean, it sort of works. I imagine the unsettled feeling I got on finishing the book was what Thériault was going for, and in a way I almost like its ending. It’s just that it didn’t fit with the rest of the novel.

Nonetheless, I’m still thinking hard over it, and I imagine I’ll still be doing so in a few weeks’ time. It’s the kind of book I might quite like to study. It’s enigmatic, strange, and perhaps rather brilliant.

Greatest strength: The premise, and the quality of the prose.

Greatest weakness: The quality of the poetry – and the fact the ending seemed so at odds with the rest of the novel.

Let’s finish on a quote: Among the thousands of soulless pieces of paper he delivered on his rounds, he occasionally came across a personal letter – a less and less common item in this era of email, and all the more fascinating for being so rare. When that happened, Bilodo… did not deliver that letter. Not right away. He took it home and steamed it open… Bilodo was an inquisitive postman.

Next week: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

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