Review: The Reader on the 6.27
Already a bestseller in France, The Reader on the 6.27 by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent has been released in English by Pan MacMillan with a charming and seasonal cover. Ros Schwartz, who also undertook the 2010 translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, has achieved a sympathetic and fluent translation.
The reader is a 36-year-old Parisian whose very name, Guylain Vignolles, lends itself to defining him as one of life’s puppets and an ugly one at that. Guylain has failed to take control of his life. By his own admission, he is waiting for the return of a father who died 28 years earlier. His mother thinks he is an executive in a publishing company when, in fact, he works in a book-pulping factory at a job which sickens him, ‘to the point that he sometimes pukes his guts out.’
His best friends are a security guard who speaks in alexandrine rhyme and an old-timer who has lost his legs, and quite possibly his mind, to the pulping machine.
At the close of every working day Guylain rescues tattered fragments of books from the jaws of ‘The Thing.’ The Zerstor 500 is an ugly machine ‘born to crush, flatten, pound, squish, tear, chop, lacerate, shred, mix, knead and boil’ and which seems to have a hunger for something more than just books.
Every night Guylain tells Rouget de Lisle, his goldfish, about his day and is grateful since ‘there is a vast difference between living alone and living alone with a goldfish.’
Every morning, Guylain reads aloud from his refugee pages to the bemusement and delight of his fellow passengers on the 6.27 commuter train.
To crown his woes, Guylain is falling under the spell of a girl he has never met.
‘In a nutshell then, no problems except that in every single area of my life I am close to the lower limit of the curve.’
Could you fail to love Guylain Vignolles?
The Reader on the 6.27 is a book about people who are not ordinary, but who live small, repetitive, ordinary lives like goldfish in a bowl. The
difference is that the goldfish in the bowl can’t even imagine the existence of a door.
This book celebrates the written word, not as an escape route in itself, but because the words paint the picture of a door. The reader must then find the door and, harder still, the courage to use it.
Before the words can be read they must be written. It is Julie, a lowly lavatory attendant born into the world the same year Guylain’s father departed it, who writes, every single day of her life, about her dreams of a day when ‘war will be less ugly, famines less unbearable, peace more everlasting, the idea of having a lie-in less appealing...’
Julie understands people. She has realised that ‘people generally only expect one thing from you: That you reflect back the image of what they want you to be.’ She accepts her role in society. She wipes toilet seats and watches the incremental progress of hairline cracks across the 14,717 white tiles of her narrow domain, but all the while she writes. She writes and waits for her Prince Charming to ‘come and set her free at last.’
Julie imagines the escape route and brings it from the realm of imagination to the real world by writing it down.
‘I love the idea that my thoughts have matured overnight, like dough left to rise which you find in the morning all puffed-up and sweet-smelling.’
Words, however, have no magical powers until they are read. That’s where the Guylain takes up the baton.
The Reader on the 6.27 is a quick read. At a mere 193 well-spaced pages, this reader found it a tad too short. The most exciting twist came on page 56, opening a bizarre and superbly original plotline which was all too rapidly tidied away leaving a sense of opportunity missed.
Nonetheless, this is a delightfully quirky little book and ideal for book clubs.
It is a story of despair and of friendship, of escapism and of romance.
Most of all, it is an allegory, a parable in praise of books.
Pick up a book and you hold in your hands a repository of hope. Open the book and read, even if only a fragment, and you glimpse inside a vault of cached dreams. You could discover that there is a world beyond your own particular goldfish bowl and you might even make good your escape.