The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault, translated by Liedewy Hawke #20booksofsummer

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman is a surprise of a book. What starts out as a quirky, playful tale becomes a deeper meditation on what it means to be human, with a striking ending that leads you right back to the beginning of the book again.

postman

Shy Montreal postal worker Bilodo is somewhat of a recluse. He lives along with Bill, his goldfish, has a small circle of friends and prides himself on how well he does his job.

He wouldn’t have wanted to swap places with anyone in the world. Except perhaps with another postman.

He is the envy of his colleagues for his ability to efficiently sort and deliver his mail and he lives his life in a routine of simplicity and apparent contentment.

However, Bilodo has a secret – one that breaks not only the ethical codes of his profession, but also the law. He is attracted to handwritten letters, which he steams open, reads and copies, living vicariously through the lives of the letter writers. He knows this is wrong, but his curiously and the happiness these correspondences bring to his quiet life, means he cannot stop himself.

Real letters, written by real people who preferred the sensual act of writing by hand, the delightfully languorous anticipation of the reply, to the reptilian coldness of the keyboard and instantaneity of the Internet

His favourite letters are those between a couple who write to each other in haiku. From following their correspondence, he knows that Grandpré is an academic and his pen pal is Ségolène, a teacher from Guadeloupe. As he intercepts their letters, he comes to fall in love with Ségolène, or with an idea of who she is, and this love is enough to sustain him without it having to become the reality of a physical relationship.

When a bizarre twist of fate means that Bilodo takes over Grandpré’s half of the correspondence, Bilodo must learn how to write haiku to pass himself off as his rival and as his poetic skills flourish, eventually his grasp on his sense of self begins to loosen.

Judged from the inside as well: living the way he did, having slipped into someone else’s mind and clothing surely denoted a high degree of eccentricity. But he fully accepted being odd in this respect, no matter what other people might think. The important part was never to lose sight of the deeper logic

Thériault’s writing is candid and simple, so innocuously innocent at the beginning that it is possible to ignore how wrong and downright creepy Bilodo’s behaviour is. Sensitively translated by Liedewey Hawke, there is a fable-like simplicity to the prose that emphasises the charm over the concern.

Bilodo’s attempts at haiku are, initially amusing but Thériault cleverly shows the improvement in the poetry as Bilodo’s confidence grows. It is quite a feat to write such subtle, moving prose and to also write such impressive haiku – a feat, which is event more successful when you remember that you are reading it in translation.

As haiku itself strives to juxtapose the permanent and the ephemeral, so too does Bilodo’s behaviour and as his submersion into Grandpré’s life deepens, the tone of the book darkens. Despite the humanisation of the strange behaviour of Bilodo, that sense of being a voyeur with nothing permanent to hold on to is brought to the fore. The ending, which is both shocking and as expected is perfectly judged and almost forces the reader to go straight back to the start and begin reading again.

haiku

If you can imagine a love story written by Kafka, The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman fits the bill – both delicate and perfectly structured, moving and impressive. Like the haiku that nourish Bilodo as much as a whole novel, this slight story contains much more than it first seems.

I read The Peculiar Life of A Lonely Postman as part of my 2018 in Translation challenge.

20 Books of Summer Challenge: 4/20

 

20 Books of Summer novels in translation

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Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

20 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I loved this book. Spot on about the improving haiku which, as you say, must have been difficult enough to pull off in the original French but in translation it’s a triumph. I read the sequel earlier this year. Although they were written over a decade apart, the books complement each other beautifully.

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  2. You’ve captured this book perfectly in your review, Cathy! It makes me want to read it again. I loved the part when he is practicing his Haiku writing, but what struck me the most about this book is how I felt about Bilodo as a character in contrast to how I know I should have felt about him – his character doesn’t *feel* like a creep, when really everything he’s doing is pretty creepy.
    I haven’t read the sequel yet, but I plan to!

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  3. I really enjoyed this book, it has really stayed with me. I agree with Naomi,Bilodo’s behaviour is really creepy, yet when I was reading this book, never once did I consider him to be creepy. I need to get the sequel too.

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  4. Lovely, spot on review Cathy.
    I have had the sequel on my bookshelf since the publisher sent it to me last year but haven’t squeezed it into my schedule yet. I was glad to hear “A Life in Books” thought the second book was a nice complement. I will have to get to it sooner rather than later. xx

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