It is 1950s Slovenia and Toni, a young postman, walks his daily round through a small town, chatting to neighbours along the way and doing his best to obey the Code of Practice, a booklet which he has learned by heart and seeks to obey religiously.
An innocent abroad, Toni was orphaned as a child and has found security in the routines of his work, taking delight in sorting the mail, following the rules precisely and keeping himself to himself. He lives in a hostel for single people; a grim existence with a shared bedroom and a bathroom up at the end of the corridor.
One day, while delivering a registered letter, he finds the recipient, a young woman called Zora, struggling with a heavily laden washing line. The wet clothes are about to fall onto the muddy ground and Toni has to abandon his mail-bag for a few minutes and help Zora secure the heavy washing line. Is Zora deliberately grappling with the line close to Toni so that he smells her scent and glances down at drops of sweat running down her cleavage? For a young man like Toni, the experience is overwhelming.
She finally managed to slip the line on the hook and rescue the washing.
We were facing each other, completely soaked.
I nodded. ‘Comrade, a postman is always ready to help.’
‘That’s nice to hear.
I straightened my uniform and put the bag over my shoulder.
‘Do you come round in the evenings too?’
When Toni returns to Zora’s house a day or two later, with another registered letter, Toni accepts her invitation to come inside and have a drink. He soon finds out that Toni has a husband, but,
They came for him, comrades in long black leather coats, at dawn, two years ago. I still keep waking up at that time and can’t go back to sleep, I don’t know where he is.
Big tears start trickling from Zora’s eyes . . . “she bit her lower lip, her nose wrinkled“. Toni felt like a hand was squeezing his heart, but,
At that moment I realised why codes and rules are so good. Because they allow us to act, even in situations that would otherwise make us lose our heads and drag us down with them.
Poor Toni ran out of the door to continue his deliveries. Thank God for the Postal Code!
But registered letters keep arriving in the sorting office and before long, Toni finds himself losing his “moral core”, a concept he has held dear up to now, as he slowly gets drawn into assisting Zora and her husband Nikolaj (now returned from wherever he was) with an elaborate scam involving the postal service.
This is a wonderful central-European novel; slightly bizarre, definitely quirky. Mazzini has recreated an all too believable picture of daily life in Communist Yugoslavia offering security to those who obey the rules but also imposing limitations arising from closed borders and an oppressive government. The little people find a place in the red-tape and bureaucracy of the system, but anyone with a spark of creativity chafes under the bonds that limit their freedom and opportunities.
In The German Lottery we see the little man, Toni, transformed and ultimately triumphing over his circumstances. The book is described as a “political fable” but I think it works as a timeless story of the loss of an immature innocence and the vulnerability of even the most honest to the lure of easy money, particularly when it is dressed up as something which benefits one’s fellow citizens.
If this book appeals to you take a look at others from Charles Boyle’s CB Editions, a “publisher of last resort”. Should you choose to buy this book, I think Charles would much appreciate it if you could buy it from his website so he can maximise his profits and publish more of his beautifully produced volumes. You can read a very good interview with Charles here and read about the meticulous approach he takes to the design of his books. I am a very enthusiastic user of e-readers but I have to confess, reading a CB Editions restores my love of printed books (alas, for a few hours only).
Another review of this book can be found at Winstonsdad’s blog. Stu wrote, “Miha has pulled of something great in this book using the past to reflect the present”.
Note: Miha Mazzini has published 27 books in 9 languages and has screen-written 2 prize wining feature films. His website is worth a look. I also attempted to read his 1984 book, Crumbs, the best-ever selling novel in Yugoslavia which is published by Freight Books. Alas, I didn’t enjoy Crumbs at all. It had none of the charm or under-stated humour of The German Lottery and I gave up on it.