Monday 9 November 2015

The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent

The reader at the centre of this novel is Guylain Vignolles, just an ordinary man whose life has been made difficult by the name his parents gave him at birth - a spoonerism away from Villain Guignol which translates as 'ugly puppet'. He suffered the kind of teasing at school that robbed him of his confidence, and now in his thirties Guylain works in a book recycling plant, managing the Zerstor, a monstrosity of a machine that noisily gobbles and pulps the books no one wants to read anymore.
    The work is bad enough for anyone, his boss is abusive, his co-worker sneering and uncouth. And on top of that, Guylain loves books. To make up for what he has to do to them each day, he salvages odd pages and reads from his collection on his daily commute by train, out loud.
    Most of the time it seems Guilain's readings go unnoticed by his fellow travellers, until one day two old ladies collar him and ask him to read at their home. He imagines another Paris apartment, probably a bit more commodious than his own tiny garret, and is surprised to find himself in at a retirement home.
    His readings are very popular and the audience ask questions and take an interest in him. What's more they mispronounce and mishear his name so that it becomes nothing that conjures up the 'ugly puppet' of before. Things are looking up. But when Guylain discovers a lost USB drive on his train, his life takes another course altogether. In order to return the drive to its owner, Guylain downloads its content and suddenly we are in the journal of Julie, who is just as disillusioned with her lot as Guylain. Julie is looking for a white knight to rescue her from her dismal job as a toilet cleaner in a shopping mall.
    The book is a charming fable about the power of literature to uplift and transform people's lives. But it is full of humour too - that particular French style of humour which sees the funny side of the potentially miserable. Take Guylain's former co-worker, Giuseppe, who's legs were lost in an unfortunate accident when he was unblocking the Zerstor. His apartment is lined with shelves of books: identical copies of the same book that was made from the pulp which was the bi-product of his accident.
    Or the security guard, Yvon, who has a passion for reciting French classical literature and speaks in Alexandrine verse. (I imagine in an Englsh story, the character would choose iambic pentameter.) Guylain is a good friend to both which is just as well or the reader could never forgive his inability to find himself a girlfriend or a decent job.
    The Reader on the 6.27 takes an afternoon to read, and once begun I found it difficult to put down. I'm not sure quite what it was that drew me in, possibly it was the 'Amelie'-like quirky Frenchness, or the desire you feel for Guylain's life to turn around. You know there is a happy ending coming up, but there is enough wit to keep your brain happy as well. And the writing is stylish and clever. What more could you want?

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