This is a novel whose plot revolves on a habit which is fast disappearing. In an age of instant communications via phone, text messages, social media and emails, few people it seems write letters to each other any longer.
Montreal postman Bilodo mourns their demise and not simply because this is a trend that threatens his job (he would after all have plenty of marketing leaflets still to deliver). His sadness stems from the fact he believes “ real letters” are more thoughtful and show more of human character. Letter writers to him are people who prefer ” 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.”
So keen is he on this form of correspondence this shy and unassuming man has got into the habit of steaming open letters he intercepts during his shift. Of all the letters he looks forward to reading, he reserves particular affection for those in the form of poems from Ségolène, a young teacher living in Guadeloupe. Since Bilodo has access only to Ségolène’s side of the conversation he has to imagine how the recipient, a Montreal academic called to Gaston Grandpré would respond. At first he doesn’t understand their poems but as he learns how they are written in the Japanese form of Haiku, his appreciation deepens. He finds himself falling in love not simply with the poems but with Ségolène herself.
In a twist of fate Grandpré is run over while attempting to post his latest haiku and dies at Bilodo’s feet. Rather than lose all contact with Ségolène, Bilodo decides to take on the dead man’s identity and to become a poet himself to ensure the long-distance relationship continues. As his poetic skills blossom, the haikus become more personal and bring a new sense of purpose to Bilodo’s life. Will Bilodo find happiness with a woman he has never seen or will his fraud be revealed and his world crash about his ears? Denis Thériault cleverly sends his readers down a few garden paths before springing a surprise surreal ending.
At first I thought I would find the story rather too playful but that all changed after Grandpre’s death where the narrative took on more of a disturbing quality. What starts as a tale of a lonely man’s search for love becomes more of a fable about the dangers of losing your sense of who you really are. Some critics have compared Thériault’s work to that of Murakami and Julian Barnes. I am not familiar enough with either of these authors to judge. But it’s clear from this little novella that Thériault can pack a lot into a small space.
Well worth reading.
The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault was published in French as Facteur émotif in 2005
Translation by Liedewy Hawke
Published in UK by Hesperus Press 2014