The Saturday Read ‘The Reader on the 6.27’ by Jean-Paul Didierlaurent (translated by Ros Schwartz)

Does our work define us? Many would argue it doesn’t and yet, we carry the bias of standard stereotypes throughout our work day toward those we encounter along the way.

This question of work identity and expectations forms the center of the story of ‘The Reader on the 6.27’ by French writer Jean-Paul Didierlaurent.

In this novel, I wanted to highlight the invisible, the battered lives, the ordinary people who often go unnoticed; and I wanted to show that each of them could have their own unexpected story. In a society where looks have become a religion and where we judge more on appearance, I wanted to highlight our prejudices and show that the clothes do not always make the man. But this book is also a declaration of love for words and for reading. All the characters have a close relationship with words – the words they read, the words they speak and finally the words of love. These words are the real cement of the novel.”

The novel’s hero is Guylain Vignolles whose workplace is dominated by an overbearing caricature of the worst boss ever, and ‘The Thing’.

“The Thing sat there, huge and menacing, right in the centre of the plant. In the fifteen years he had worked there, Guylain had never been able to call it by its real name, as if the simple act of naming it might be to acknowledge it, to demonstrate a sort of tacit acceptance, which he did not want at any cost. Refusing to name it was the last bastion he had managed to erect between it and himself, to avoid selling his soul for good.”

What if your job was to destroy the thing you loved most? That’s Guylain’s dilemma. ‘The Thing’ – the Zerstor 500 – is a hungry metal behemoth that turns books into sludge. (You will have a different view of recycling after reading the description.)

Guylain finds meaning in rescuing sheets of paper from the jaws of the “eleven-tonne monstrosity” and reading these disjointed narratives to his fellow commuters each morning on the 6.27.

Then, one day he finds a memory stick “through pure chance” as “it jumped out of the folding seat as he lowered it. A little plastic thing barely the size of a domino which bounced across the floor of the compartment and came to a halt between his feet..”

The contents of the USB are revealed as Guylain, the ‘reader on the 6.27’, replaces his daily narration from the remainders of ‘the thing’ with the story of a mysterious stranger.

“Once a year, at the spring equinox, I do a recount. Just to see, to make sure that nothing ever changes. At this very special time of year, when day and night share time equally, I do a recount with, lodged in the back of my mind, the ludicrous idea that perhaps, yes, perhaps one day, even something as unchanging as the number of tiles covering my domain from floor to ceiling might change.  It’s as hopeless and stupid as believing in the existence of Prince Charming, but deep down inside me is that little girl who refuses to die and who, once a year wants to believe in miracles.”

Julie’s domain is in the basement of a mall. And it’s her story that should forever challenge the reader’s preconceptions of society’s work identity assignments.

“When you’re a public lavatory attendant, wherever that may be, you’re not expected to keep a diary and sit there tapping away on the keyboard of your laptop. You’re only good for wiping from morning to evening, shining the chrome, scrubbing, polishing, rinsing, refurbishing the cubicles with toilet paper, and that’s it. A loo attendant is meant to clean, not to write…It’s as if there has been a misunderstanding, a miscasting. In the nether world, even a miserable twelve-inch laptop next to the tips saucer will always be a blot on the landscape…”

“I quickly had to come to terms with the fact that people generally expect only one thing of you: that you reflect back the image of what they want you to be.”

“Fit docilely into the mould, slip into this lavatory attendant’s costume – which is what I am paid to do – and play the part, sticking closely to the script.”

Mr. Didierlaurent has filled the gap in workplace literature with a beautifully told story of memorable characters who reside in the periphery of vision, but will long linger in the reader’s memory. Here is a novelist providing the lesson that not all workplace advice is to be found in the business section of the bookstore.

After reading the novel, and becoming acquainted with a cast of characters who bring it to life, perhaps we can reorient our expectations, and look beyond the surface for the complementing prism of talent that defines us all.

Resist “sticking closely to the script”, and follow Julie’s advice.

“I advance in small steps. Not a single day goes by without my writing. Not to do so would be as if I had restricted myself to the role of loo-poo-puke cleaner that they want me to play, a poor creature whose only raison d’être is the lowly occupation for which she is paid.”

 

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