“The Reader On The 6.27” by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (2015)

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“Some people are born deaf, mute or blind.”

The creation of books is, to my mind, a symbol of humanity’s hope for the future. It’s a sign that we think it’s important to put down all we’ve learnt and think we’ve learnt for other people to read. The act of destroying books, therefore, is horrendous to me. A task we had to complete during my university degree involved ripping up a book to reconstruct the text in a new order, and that was hard enough. The idea of destroying books en masse … I can’t bear it.

Guylain Vignolles, the hero of this tale, shares my view. He adores books and hates the idea of destroying them – which is unfortunate, as his job is to run the book pulping machine at a factory in France. Every day, lorry-loads of remaindered books turn up and are shovelled into the machine’s maw and reduced to sludge, which is then taken off to be recycled into new books. Perhaps that’s admirable, but Guylian takes no pleasure from it, especially when everyone around him seems to enjoy their work. Guylian’s single joy is, once a day, when the machine is turned off, he climbs into its inner workings and rescues the handful of pages that has survived. He takes them home, dries them off, and reads them to his fellow commuters on the morning train, regardless of what they say or where they came from.

Guylian’s life takes on a new layer of excitement, however, when first he is invited by two elderly passengers to read at their nursing home, and then when he finds a memory stick on his usual train seat which contains the diary of an enigmatic and engaging lavatory attendant from somewhere in Paris. He begins to see that there may be more to life than he’d allowed there to be, and soon things begin to change.

The book’s own blurb describes the finding of the diary as a pivotal plot point, and while it is, it doesn’t actually occur until over halfway through the novel. The rest is equally compelling, though. Guylian is surrounded by a number of eccentric figures, including the plant’s security guard who speaks only in alexandrines and spends his time reading poetry aloud to an invisible audience in his little hut, and Guiseppe, a former colleague who is on a hunt for his legs after having them torn off in an industrial accident involving the book pulping machine. His story, particularly, is a beautiful one which I’m not going to go into here because I don’t want to spoil it, but it’s a great example of how white lies can be beneficial.

To return to where I began, the book is dripping with hope. The love of books and the written word is hopeful. Guylian manages to give Guiseppe a shot of hope just whenever he is most in need of it. Julie, the author of the diary, is hopeful for something that’s missing in her life. As always with translated books, you can never be quite sure how it would have read in the original language (unless you happen to speak both, and my French is practically non-existent). Kudos must go to Ros Schwartz who translated this one, which must have been especially difficult given the large amount of rhyming poetry present. Some things don’t translate, though. Guylian’s full name is a spoonerism pun that only works in French and while it’s explained here, the impact is less striking to an English reader.

It’s a quick, gorgeous read and one for anyone who needs a bit of hope in their lives.

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“The Creator” by Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir (2008)

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creator“Sveinn hung the last ones out to dry: the hooks pierced the back of the necks.”

I don’t know much about Iceland. In fact, I know three things about it. Firstly, naming conventions work so that parents and their children have different surnames. Secondly, they are the country with the most Nobel Prizes per capita (with 1 prize). Thirdly, every Christmas Eve it is traditional to buy people books, which I think is one of the most wonderful traditions on the planet. Had I got my skates on and finished this book on Christmas Eve, then it would have been thematically appropriate to present the world with an Icelandic novel on my blog on that day. As it is, I’ve been full of alcohol and food for the last few days, so you’re getting it on Boxing Day instead. Cheers!

In the small Icelandic town of Akranes, Sveinn lives a fairly solitary existence. Most of the time, the only company he has are the dolls he makes by hand, but these are far from children’s playthings. Sveinn makes sex dolls, and because of this, most of society seems to have shunned him, except the men grateful for his products, which are regarded as things of beauty and shockingly realistic.

One night, Lóa, a woman who is only just holding it all together, breaks down outside Sveinn’s house. He takes her in, cooks her dinner and fixes her car. Too tired and drunk to drive home, she sleeps in his living room, and when Sveinn wakes up the next morning, he finds that Lóa has gone – and she’s taken one of the dolls with her.

Like so many books that draw me in with some kind of magnetism, this one again deals with themes of loneliness and the struggle of coping without a network around you for support. Given that Iceland could be thought of as being rather a cold and empty island, the sense of being alone seems magnified, and you feel for Sveinn and Lóa in their difficult circumstances. Chapters alternate between their viewpoints, and sometimes the events overlap, giving you slightly different versions of what happened or how conversations went depending on which side you’re hearing. The novel takes place over the space of a week or so, and it is a week that will change them both profoundly.

As ever with translated books, you never really know how much of it is down to the writer and how much to the translator, but the book is full of some very beautiful and meaningful lines. At one point, Sveinn ponders, “There are some days when you are only sure of what you don’t want”, which about sums up my life, and later there’s one of my favourite analogies in fiction: “Sunday was as dreary and discordant as a church choir in a sparsely populated country parish…”

It’s a strange but rather charming book, with likeable, odd characters and a melancholic sense of whimsy. I liked it, and I think I’ll definitely be returning to this most literary of countries for more fiction in the future.