The art of haiku and unrequited love…

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault

Translated by Liedewy Hawke


I’ve been meaning to read this bittersweet novella ever since Hesperus Press published it in England last autumn. Read now, it made a perfect palate-cleanser between some heavier reads for the new issue of Shiny New Books (out on Thursday 8th October), and also crossed the ‘Canadian Author’ box off my BookBingo card (just a few to go on that now!).

It begins with a haiku:

Swirling like water
against rugged rocks,
time goes around and around

The Japanese poetic form will play a large part in this beguiling novella, which has a rather unusual love story at its heart. Although letters sent through the mail are the main driver of the exquisite plot, this is not an epistolary novel. It is, however, about the titular postman, and his extraordinary habits…

Bilodo is a postman in Montreal. He is twenty-seven, fit and efficient at his job – you’d have to be with 1495 steps on 115 staircases to climb up and down every day out on his round. However, he lives all alone with just his goldfish, Bill, for company in his little apartment. He does have one friend, Robert, who is rather oafish and always trying to set him up with dates. The only other person he really interfaces with in any way is Tania, the waitress at the brasserie where he lunches and practises his calligraphy.  He has no-one to write to him – it’s as if the world has forgotten him.

As an antidote to this, he has developed a naughty habit.

Bilodo was an inquisitive postman.

He takes letters home, carefully steams them open, enjoys reading them and takes a photocopy for his files before carefully sealing them back up and delivering them to their proper destination the next day.

“He had been practising this clandestine activity for two years now. It was a crime, he was well aware of that, but guilt paled into insignificance beside supreme curiosity.”

Letters from one sister to another, from a father in prison to his son, servicemen in Afghanistan, love letters and Dear John ones. 

“All together they formed  kind of soap opera with multiple plots. Or rather half of a soap opera, whose other half, the one of the ‘outgoing post’, was unfortunately unavailable to him. But he liked to make up that other part, to draft elaborate replies he never posted, and when another letter arrived he was often amazed to see how naturally it fitted in with his own secret reply.”

None of these letters enchanted him more than the ones from Ségolène in Guadeloupe. Her missives to Gaston Grandpré each consist of a single haiku. A letter from Ségolène is a cause for celebration for Bilodo. He saves it until after dinner is finished and tidied away, puts on some soft jazz and lights a candle before reading and re-reading each little poem.  He is entranced by the form of the haiku and his vision of the woman writing them with whom he falls in love. It becomes an obsession, and his life, such as it was, outside his apartment starts to suffer.

It’s hard to say more about this story without spoiling the plot, but one day something happens which will throw a spanner in the works of the well-oiled chain of correspondence between Ségolène and Grandpré.  Bilodo, deep in the throes of his unrequited passion, realises that he can step into the breach, but it will require him to learn to write haiku…

Told with a great sense of humour, this novella is completely charming on the surface. At first glance, it may appear to be a story of unrequited love, but as you read on, something darker and more twisted is revealed – and fate will overtake Bilodo. In this, the story is much like the deepest black comedies by Frenchman Pascal Garnier. The Hesperus edition also comes with lovely French flaps covers, plus Reading Group questions and an interview with the author. Superbe! (9/10)

* * * * *

One thing this novel will make you want to do is to explore the world of the haiku, and maybe have a go at writing your own – something I’ve dabbled with in the past. Here is my latest effort, inspired by the arrival this weekend of the rides and sideshows for the Michaelmas Fair in Abingdon which is on Monday and Tuesday next week.

The fair is in town.
Hot-dogs, diesel, music, lights,
assault the senses.

* * * * *
Source: Own Copy.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault, translated by Liedewy Hawke. Hesperus, 2014. Paperback, 128 pages.

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