No 456 The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind, translated by John E Woods

It’s been a long time since I’ve read anything by Patrick Süskind. I’ve long been a fan of Perfume and I enjoyed his one man play The Double Bass, so I was keen to try more of his work. The Pigeon also covers two categories for my November reading – Novellas in November and German Literature Month.

The Pigeon tells the story of one dramatic day in the life of Jonathan Noel. Jonathan leads a solitary and quiet life. He has worked in one job – as a bank guard – all his adult life and has lived in the same bedsit for over thirty years. He feels happy and appreciates the small pleasures that come from his routine existence. He has no friends and speaks to no one if he can help it. All Jonathan wants is to continue in this way until he has paid off his bedsit and can know that he owns his own home. He has no other dreams or goals and expects no more from life than what he already has.

Once Jonathan had come to the realization that the essence of human freedom consisted in the possession of a shared toilet and that this essential freedom was at his disposal, he was immediately seized with a profound satisfaction. Yes, it was indeed right to have arranged his life as he had! He led a thoroughly successful existence. There was nothing, absolutely nothing whatever to regret or to envy other people for.

Each day life is the same for Jonathan until the day in question, when on his morning trip to the communal bathroom, he sees that a pigeon has made its way into the building and is outside his door. An odd occurrence, granted, but Jonathan’s reaction is immediate, overwhelming and completely exaggerated and this change to his routine (and what follows throughout the day) threaten the very stability of his existence.

It had laid its head to one side and was glaring at Jonathan with its left eye. This eye, a small, circular disk, brown with a black center, was dreadful to behold. It was like a button sewn onto the feathers of the head, lashless, browless, quite naked, turned quite shamelessly to the world and monstrously open; at the same time, however, there was something guarded and devious in that eye; and yet likewise it seemed to be neither open nor guarded, but rather quite simply lifeless, like the lens of a camera that swallows all external light and allows nothing to shine back out of its interior. No luster, no shimmer lay in that eye, not a spark of anything alive. It was an eye without sight. 

As Jonathan’s day goes from bad to worse, The Pigeon explores how a seemingly insignificant event and threaten the stability of even the most meticulously planned existence. As Jonathan tries to go about his day as normal, he now sees threats everywhere. He is plagued with the menace of the unknown and realises just how unstable his life has become.

The Pigeon is a wonderfully succinct book, in the vein of Kafka, or even Poe. The tone is perfect, at times humorous, capturing the utter absurdity of Jonathan’s reaction to the bird yet also tense. Jonathan’s life might not be much, but the thought that he might totally upend it over an animal, is at times, hard to bear.

Süskind gives the reader just enough background information about Jonathan to hint at why his unravelling is so swift and so dramatic. We learn early on in the book that his parents were killed by the Nazis during World War II and that he was once married, but his wife left him for another man. Johnathan’s attempts to belong, to have a family, have all come to nothing and he protects himself now by keeping people at arm’s length. His routine and his solitude have become his way of dealing with trauma and when those things are threatened, so too is his sanity.  

As you would expect from Süskind, The Pigeon is beautifully written with, an exactitude and attention to detail that belies its short length. Süskind creates sympathy for his main character by allowing the tension to build subtly making the stakes feel higher than they really are. Of course Jonathan could just ask someone to get rid of the pigeon, or simply wait until it leaves by itself, but the appearance of the bird has released a hidden anxiety and his delicate equilibrium has been shattered, bringing past traumas to the surface.

… you’re a child, you only dreamed that you had grown up to be a disgusting old guard in Paris, but you’re a child and you’re sitting in the cellar of your parents’ house, and outside is war, and you’re trapped, buried, forgotten. Why don’t they come? Why don’t they rescue me? Why is it so deathly still? Where are the other people? My God, where are the other people? I simply cannot live without other people!

The Pigeon is a much slighter work than Perfume, yet is a fascinating character study that suits the novella form perfectly.

read on: book
number read: 290
number remaining: 456

Novellas in November novels in translation The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

18 Comments Leave a comment

  1. I haven’t read Perfume. I always meant to but somehow never did. I’ve only read a novella by Süskind, called Maître Mussard’s Bequest – it was a Bloomsbury Quid about 25 years ago – which was also about an unravelling mind, this one belonging to a former court jeweller in 18th century Paris, and the effects of the Enlightenment on the way people thought. Now I want to read The Pigeon and Perfume!

    Liked by 2 people

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