The Postman (Il Postino) is a bittersweet tale of first love ignited by the power and passion of Pablo Neruda’s timeless poetry.
Unlike the other men of his village, Mario balks at the prospect of life as a fisherman, choosing instead to become the postman for a beautiful island, just off the mainland. Although the island has a number of inhabitants, Mario has only one postal customer, the only literate resident, who is also Chile’s most beloved poet, Pablo Neruda, who is living in exile.
The friendship between the postman and the poet blossoms, Mario begs Neruda for advice on how best to woo the voluptuous young barmaid, Beatriz, with whom Mario has fallen in love. As Neruda tutors him in the finer lessons of love, Mario discovers that he too has a gift for poetry. Soon the island air is thick with the exchange of sensuous metaphors.
The story takes place in 1969, in a small Chilean fishing village called San Antonio. Mario is a fisherman’s son, and as typical of our storybook hero’s, he has no desire to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a fisherman. Problem is, he really doesn’t want to ‘be’ anything else either, but his love of movies and magazines and lack of means to obtain these things motivate him to apply for a job as a postman for the island.
His only customer though, is Pablo Neruda. Who here is a fan of Neruda? *hand waving madly* Now, it’s true that a lot of his poetry is political and he well known for his surrealist style. However, he wrote some of the loveliest, swoonworthy poetry I’ve ever read. If you haven’t read his works, I highly recommend Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair. Here is a very well known poem from 100 Love Sonnets, and another of my favourites.
“I love you without knowing how, or when, or from where. I love you simply, without problems or pride: I love you in this way because I do not know any other way of loving but this, in which there is no I or you, so intimate that your hand upon my chest is my hand, so intimate that when I fall asleep your eyes close.”
“Maybe nothingness is to be without your presence,
without you moving, slicing the noon
like a blue flower, without you walking
later through the fog and the cobbles,
without the light you carry in your hand,
golden, which maybe others will not see,
which maybe no one knew was growing
like the red beginnings of a rose.
In short, without your presence: without your coming
suddenly, incitingly, to know my life,
gust of a rosebush, wheat of wind:
since then I am because you are,
since then you are, I am, we are,
and through love I will be, you will be, we will be.”
I digress…but Neruda is the reason I read this book in the first place. Back to Mario and his new job…
Mario is an admirer of Neruda and though he is shy at first, he is determined to have Neruda teach him about poetry and a bond forms between the two. The story gains momentum when Mario falls in love with the beautiful young woman who serves wine at the local tavern, which is run by her mother. The young woman, Beatriz, apparently is as uncomplicated as he is. There is nothing subtle about her attractions, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. Her mother, however, is one scary future mother-in-law. Here, Neruda is called upon to assist Mario in his attempt to woo Beatriz, and get past her battle-ax of a mother. However, not even the ‘the bard’ is impervious to the iron will of this woman…
”Mrs. Rosa Gonzalez . . . Pablo Neruda here again.”
”I don’t care if you’re Jesus Christ and his twelve apostles, the postman Mario Jimenez will never set foot in this house again.”
The two do find a way to be together, after all, the story so far has been fairly predictable. What happens next will not come as a surprise given the time in Chile’s history this story takes place and the involvement of Neruda. When Salvador Allende becomes the Chilean president, Neruda is sent to France as ambassador. Mario corresponds with Neruda while he is away, writing of daily life in San Antonio. Things seem well in Chile under the Allende administration at first but slowly begin to decline due to work shortages and political unrest amongst the citizens. Neruda returns to a failing Chile, and things fall apart for our characters when Allende is murdered and overthrown by General Pinochet.
It’s not a clever story we are after when reading this book, and despite the political history and the typical ending that the involvement of political unrest brings about, that is not what makes this book so meaningful to me, though I do appreciate the cultural lessons it provides. The essence of this book is in its characters and it’s setting. It’s in Mario’s discovery of his love of poetry and his love of Beatriz. It’s also in the beautiful, verbose, poetic way this book is written. The prologue by the author shows he does not take his own verbosity seriously, instead using it as an ironic twist. I can appreciate that.