A charming short novel, a little pathetic, a lot poignant, and utterly European. A translation from its native French, it tells a story of Guylain Vignolles, a lonely man who works for a book-pulping factory and hates his job with a passion. Every evening, when he cleans up his machine after a day of devouring books, he finds and rescues a few disparate pages, usually from different books, that found their way into a dysfunctional corner of the apparatus. The next morning, on his commute to work on the train that leaves his station at 6.27, he reads those pages aloud to his fellow commuters. There are no stories, just snippets of text, and everyone on the train accepts Guylain and his pages as a feature of the train, their mornings’ wake-up ritual. Like coffee.
One day, Guylain finds a USB drive in his customary seat on the train. The drive contains a diary of a woman who works cleaning toilets in a mall. She never mentions the name of the mall or her own last name, just the first name – Julie – but Guylain becomes obsessed with her. They seem like soulmates, both lonely, both in love with words and writing, both loathing their jobs. Both drifting through life, aimless like autumn leaves. Now, instead of pages torn out of the books he destroys, he reads Julie’s diary aloud to his fellow passengers and savors every word. He falls in love with the author of the diary but he doesn’t know how to find her.
I can’t say I liked Guylain – he is too ‘small’ for my taste. I didn’t admire him but I definitely sympathized with him. I wanted his life to improve. I wanted him to find happiness. I desperately wanted him to meet Julie.
One of the Guylain’s quirks that surprised me was his dislike of his own name. He yearned to be called something banal, like Hugo or Xavier, because his unusual name often elicited mockery by his mates and was generally the source of embarrassment to Guylain. I don’t speak French, so I don’t know how the name sounds to a French ear, but for me, with my love of English, it sounds marvelous, like a knight of the Round Table. Like Gawain. It speak to me of valor and the nobility of the heart, of beauty and kindness, and Guylain definitely qualifies.
A quiet and wonderful novel.