Translated from the French by Liedewy Hawke
Reviewed by Ali Hope
The art of the Haiku is an ancient one, and one I admit I knew little about, barring the very basic structure of it. In this unusual and fully engaging novella Denis Thériault weaves together the intricacies of this beautiful art form, with the story of a French Canadian postman. The result is a very unusual love story, about which I really can’t say too much without spoiling it for future readers.
Montreal postman Bilodo has a small life; he lives in a small apartment, he has one friend, who constantly irritates him, a goldfish called Bill, and he practices calligraphy at lunchtime to the bafflement of his colleagues. One of the main streets on Bilodo’s route has 115 staircases leading up to the front doors from the street, this adds up to 1495 steps, Bilodo has counted them. As a postman however, Bilodo is unusual, and let us all hope unique, for he filters out some of the personal letters he comes across.
He himself never received personal post. He would’ve have liked to but he didn’t have anyone to whom he was close enough to correspond. He used to send letters to himself, but the experience had been a disappointment. He’d gradually stopped, and didn’t really miss it; he didn’t miss himself. More alluring by far were letters from others. 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 – people for whom the act of writing was a deliberate choice and in some cases, one sensed, a matter of principle, a stand taken in favour of a lifestyle not quite so determined by the race against time and the obligation to perform.
Taking them home he carefully steams these letters open, delighting in their contents, before delivering them just twenty-four hours late the following day. In the quiet of his high rise apartment Bilodo revels in the stories of Doris who writes to her sister Gwendoline, the prison letters Richard sends to his young son, the long letters of a nun to her old friend and the erotic little missives of a nurse working in the Yukon, to her fiancé. There were letters from servicemen in Afghanistan, and there were love letters, through which Bilbo could enlarge his life, living vicariously by the one-sided glimpses of people he will never meet. However there was one correspondent that captured Bilodo’s imagination and his heart above all the others. Ségolène from Guadeloupe regularly writes to Gaston Grandpré, each letter consisting of just one three lined verse, a haiku. Bilodo is curious, and puzzled, and spends time researching the art form, the complexities of which I had no idea.
Bilodo makes a real occasion of each new letter from Ségolène, lighting candles, jazz softly playing in the background; he reads and re-reads the contents, transported by the words of each haiku. As Bilodo’s obsession with Ségolène increases he loses interest in the other correspondents. His work suffers, as does his friendship with postal colleague Robert.
Strangely lucid, Bilodo realised he wouldn’t be able to go on living without Ségolène, he wouldn’t survive, nothing would have meaning or importance any more, beauty and desire lost to him forever, peace of mind an abstract concept drifting somewhere in the distance along with all those other emotions he’d probably never feel, and he himself just a piece of wreckage.
One day an accident threatens to interrupt the flow of haikus from Guadeloupe, and Bilodo is devastated. So when fate gives him the chance to become the kind of man he most dreams of being like, he seizes the opportunity, with all its attendant risks. The life that Bilodo enters into now becomes increasingly peculiar, in his desperation to continue reading haiku from Ségolène. Now Bilodo finds himself needing to learn the delicate art of haiku himself.
The Peculiar Life of a lonely Postman is as delicately balanced and structured as a haiku itself, and this Hesperus edition itself a lovely thing. Thériault blends a gentle humour with the poignancy of his story, which works beautifully with the exquisite haiku that are sprinkled throughout this short novel. The ending has a surprising and memorable denouement; I shall say no more than that.
Ali blogs at Heavenali.
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