“Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible” (Javier Pascual Salcedo)

Last week I looked at politics with a big P; this week I thought I’d look at politics with a small p, the civil servants and bureaucrats that keep the machine turning. Hence one novel about a postman and one about a clerk, and two more stops on my Around the World in 80 Books Reading challenge, hosted by Hard Book Habit.

Firstly, The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Theriault (2005, trans. Liedewy Hawke, 2008) which I first heard about over at Naomi’s blog Consumed by Ink – do check out her review! This novella (108 pages) is a wee gem. It tells the story of Bilodo, the titular mail deliverer, who loves his job.

“He wouldn’t have wanted to swap places with anyone in the world, Except perhaps with another postman.”

He spends his days delivering mail and practising calligraphy, and his nights steaming open the (increasingly rare) personal letters which he subsequently delivers the next day. He is a loner who enjoys the drama of life at a step removed:

“Love in every grammatical form and every possible tone, dished up in every imaginable shape: passionate letters or courteous ones, sometimes suggestive and sometimes chaste, either calm or dramatic, occasionally violent, often lyrical, and especially moving when the feelings were expressed in simple terms, and never quite as touching as  when the emotions hid between the lines, burning away almost invisibly behind a screen of innocuous words.”

Eventually though, he comes to obsess about one correspondence only, that between Segolene, a teacher in Guadalupe, and Gaston, a Canadian poet, which takes place through an exchange of haikus. Gradually Bilodo’s life becomes narrower and narrower as he is convinced he is in love with Segolene:

“Bilodo dreamt, and wished for nothing else; he wanted only to continue on like this, to keep savouring the dazzling dreams and ecstatic visions Segolene’s words conjured up for him. His only desire was that the pleasant status quo might endure, that nothing would disturb his quiet bliss.”

Needless to say, the status quo does not endure. Rather Bilodo’s life starts to rapidly unravel and reconstruct in a way that challenges who he is and his sense of self. I can’t say too much more for fear of spoilers in such a short book, but it is a beautifully written tale that has stayed with me.  Miraculously, Bilodo seems sad and misguided rather than creepy and disturbing.  The haikus are a great touch and a surprising source of comedy as Bilodo tries his hand and fails miserably. It’s most certainly a peculiar tale, melancholy yet playful, and with a truly surprising ending.

Secondly, All the Names by Nobel Prize- winning author Jose Saramago (1997, trans. Margaret Jull Costa, 1999). Superficially at least, this has many similarities with The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman. A male loner becomes obsessed with a woman he has never met, and his life is increasingly consumed in the quest for knowledge of her, whilst remaining removed from the woman herself. But All the Names has a very different feel to it, almost fabulist and bordering on the surreal.

Senhor Jose works in the Central Registry for Births, Marriages and Deaths. He thinks of himself as elderly although he’s only in his 50s, and is a reliable, unobstrusive worker.

“the Registry contains a record of everything and everyone, thanks to the persistent efforts of an unbroken line of great registrars, all that is most sublime and most trivial about public office has been brought together, the qualities that make the civil servant a creature apart, both usufructuary and dependent on the physical and mental space defined by the reach of his pen nib.”

However, Senhor Jose secretly flouts the Registry’s rules, by compiling records of celebrities, tracking the events in their lives and using the Registry’s documents to do so. In such a regimented place where everyone follows numerous rules, customs and protocols, the increased use of file documents is noted. At this point though, Senhor Jose accidently takes the file card of a perfectly ordinary woman, and subsequently becomes obsessed with piecing together her life without arousing the suspicions of his monolith employer.

“One of the many mysteries in life in the Central Registry, which really would be worth investigating if the matter of Senhor Jose and the unknown woman had not absorbed all our attention, was how the staff, despite the traffic jams affecting the city, always managed to arrive at work in the same order, first the clerks, regardless of length of service, then the deputy who opened the door, then the senior clerks, in order of precedence, then the oldest deputy, and finally, the Registrar, who arrives when he has to arrive and does not have to answer to anyone. Anyway, the fact stands recorded.”

As Senhor Jose pieces together the woman’s history, Saramago is able to explore enormous themes around life, death, purpose, memorial, memory, the state and individual free will. He does so with such wit and humanity that it is never a heavy going, but rather a careful balance of compassion and absurdity which makes for an unsettling, though-provoking read.

“There was almost an absolute silence, you could scarcely hear the noise made by the few cars still out and about in the city. What you could hear most clearly was a muffled sound that rose and fell, like a distant bellows, but Senhor Jose was used to that, it was the Central Registry breathing.”

To end, I know Pete Burns is singing about vinyl not paper, but there are surprisingly few pop songs about administrative record-keeping:

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19 thoughts on ““Bureaucracy is the art of making the possible impossible” (Javier Pascual Salcedo)

  1. Oh my goodness, All the Names – what a surreal book, so characteristic of Saramago’s style! I remember getting totally caught up in the story when I read it a few years ago. Lovely review – it’s nice to see this author getting some airtime across the blogosphere.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Both of these look wonderful, especially the Saramago. I’m fascinated by how bureaucracy can be used to both use and abuse power and the place of those who run the machine within in, so this sounds right up my street. Fingers crossed they have it in the library or it’ll be a long wait for me! Oh, and your choice of Pete Burns was inspired – I actually snorted coffee! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Yay, so glad you liked The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman! I thought the ending was so great, but there’s only so much you can say without giving things away.
    All the Names also sounds good! I’ve only ever read Blindness, which was a great story, but sounds quite different from this one. It’s good to have a recommendation for another one of his books.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for pointing me in the direction of The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman, it was a great read! I can imagine some people wouldn’t like the ending but like you, I thought it was a stroke of brilliance.

      This was the first of Saramago’s work that I’d read, and I’m keen to read more now. I’ll try and get hold of Blindness.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. For the life of me I can’t remember who it was, but I was reading an article the other day about authors who have kept or had to return to day jobs, as writing doesn’t pay quite what it used to. Anyway, one was a postman, and I can imagine that being a great job for thinking time, up early when it’s quiet. And especially rural postal services, driving between remote farms and cottages. Another book added to my list, cheers 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • And you’d get to meet all sorts of people, who you could thinly disguise as characters in your books – its the perfect job for a writer!

      I hope you enjoy The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman 🙂

      I’m intrigued as to who the writer could be who’s gone back to the job, my money’s on Magnus Mills…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Sorry I’m so late to comment… My whole family was struck down with a 24-hour bug and I’m just now catching up.

    Both of these books sound brilliant and your music choices are, as usual, spot on. I particularly love the quote from Peculiar Life about enjoying being a postman 🙂

    I’ve often had discussions with my brother who longed to do something other than his desk job, feeling that he wasn’t acting ambitious enough. I used to say to him, “It’s okay not to love your job to bits. It’s okay to show up, do a good job, not seek a promotion, and go home on the dot of 5.30pm to your hobbies.” (his hobby is writing and recording music). After many, many years of saying this, he’s finally doing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh no! What a horrible thing to happen. I hope you are all fully recovered.

      I totally agree – there’s a huge emphasis on finding a job that offers the ultimate fulfilment but actually, if it facilitates the things you love in life, that’s just brilliant. It’s great that your brother is making time for his hobbies – I don’t think anyone leaves this world wishing they’d spent more time at work!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Hello! I’m new around here and I love your blog, so unique to have weekly themes! I’m definitely adding The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman to my TBR. You might enjoy The Palace of Dreams by Albanian writer Ismail Kadare,,it’s also about a lowly clerk working for an Orwellian state and the (absurd) lengths autocratic rule will go for total control of its populace–even unto the frontier of dreams.

    Liked by 1 person

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