I love all things Japanese. I am a sucker for Zen philosophy and works of Murakami. But, haiku always seemed daunting to me. Although I enjoyed reading quite a few simple, charming ones in The Honest Truth, it didn’t occur to me that I could buy a couple of books on haiku, and learn more about the art-form. However, after reading Denis Theriault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman, I want to read some enlightening books on haiku, and maybe, just maybe, try writing a couple; Haiku and Tanka gratify the senses, don’t they?
Bilodo is a lonely 27-year-old postman. During the day, there is nothing abnormal about his life. He ascends and descends numerous staircases everyday that he can even compete in Olympics if only it had such a category. Bilodo visits the same cafe for lunch, and derives pleasure from practising calligraphy.
For him, delivering post was a mission he accomplished conscientiously, knowing he contributed in this way to the maintenance of order in the universe. He wouldn’t have wanted to swap places with anyone in the world. Except perhaps with another postman.
In the night though, he is a curious man. After he plays Call of Duty, wolfs down his supper, and cleans up his sink, he carefully steams open a few envelopes, which he should have delivered that day. The clandestine activity of reading letters that are not intended for him attaches a great purpose to his life. Of all the letters that he secretly reads, the communication between a Japanese enthusiast and a poet called Grandpre and a woman called Segolene, changes his life’s course.
In the times of technology, Grandpre and Segolene write to each other. Their correspondence is even more special for the friends recount their daily affairs in the form of haiku. While Bilodo has no access to Grandpre’s letters, he devours Segolene’s letters so much that he chooses to do something queer after the unexpected demise of Grandpre, only to satiate his curiosity, and to keep poor Segolene happy.
Segolene’s writing was a sweet scent for the eye, an elixir, an ode. It was a graphic symphony, an apotheosis. It was so beautiful it made you weep. Having read somewhere that handwriting was a reflection of a person’s soul, Bilodo readily concluded that Segolene’s soul must be incomparably pure. If angels wrote, surely it was like this.
Bilodo’s earth falls off its axis after Grandpre passes away. He has to know how the plot would have unfolded. He has to know what was in Grandpre’s last letter. He cannot envisage the pain that Segolene would experience after learning about Grandpre. The film that he has been watching shouldn’t end that way. So, he brings upon himself the responsibility of becoming Grandpre. One may try living the life of the deceased, but how could one possess the talent that the dead one had? Bilodo gives his heart and soul to learn writing haiku. That’s when the book unveils its sheer beauty. His struggle to learn an art-form is almost a subtle depiction of every writer’s battle.
I love so many things about The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman. The translation is simple, yet lyrical. Theriault’s love for Zen philosophy, and the significance of Enso are the spine of the story. Just like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whom Theriault adores, the book holds an element of magical-realism. I would have loved it more if Theriault had left it that way. But, the marvellous experience that the element offers is diluted a wee bit by Bilodo’s rumination on the strange occurrence. That is not a complaint all right. When I read the Haiku and Tanka, and when I read about the transformed life of Bilodo, which becomes a ‘cosmic trap’, a surreal feeling envelopes me; the book is a gem. I did not expect it to be this beautiful.
“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.”
“She was calling. She was calling him, and he answered, also with a song, because that was how you communicated when you were a whale — you sang into the void, unafraid of the darkness that grew ever darker, ever deeper.”