Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Pigeon!

Our book today is the 1987 novella The Pigeon by Patrick Suskind, better known to the reading world as the author of Perfume. Unlike Perfume, Pigeon is only a novella in length, and it has no riveting villain, no action, and no real plot to speak of. Instead, it's a deft little scenario, and the English translation by John E. Woods will work its way into your mind and stay there for a while.

The scenario is simple. Jonathan Noel is a timid, mindless middle-aged bank guard who's been living in the same eleven-by-seven-foot room in a lodging house for years. The room has no bath, no stove, only one window, but he loves it, loves the rote security of it, has almost managed to save up enough money to buy it outright from his landlady. His days are completely circumscribed - he goes to work, he comes back to his room, where he can mutedly revel in his ability to shut out the rest of the world. He has no friends, no social life, no hobbies or activities - but he has the security of his little room, and as anybody who's ever been briefly homeless can tell you, that sometimes means a great deal, as Jonathan reflects while watching a homeless man defecate in public:
What could be more demeaning than those pulled-down trousers, that crouch, that coerced ugly nakedness? What could be more wretched and humbling than being forced to do your embarrassing business before the eyes of the world? Nature's necessity! The very term betrayed its tormented victim. And like anything that you had to do out of duress, it demanded, for it to be at all bearable, the radical absence of other people ... or at least the appearance of absence: a wood if you found yourself in the country; a bush if you were overcome in an open field, or at least a farmer's furrow, or twilight or, if there was nothing else, a good steep bank that commanded a view of several miles in all directions, with no one in sight. And in the city? With its teeming masses? Where it was never really dark? Where even the ruins of an abandoned lot offered no adequate  safeguard against obtrusive stares? In the city, nothing but a good lock and bolt helped you distance yourself from other people. And the man who did not have this one, this sure refuge for the necessity of nature, was the most miserable and pitiable of men, and freedom just silly talk.

The monotony of this routine is disrupted one morning when Jonathan opens his door, steps out into the hallway, and encounters a pigeon that has somehow managed to make its way into the building. The perfectly controlled way Suskind brings us inside Jonathan's visceral horror at such a thing is the showpiece of this novella:
It had laid its head to one side and was glaring at Jonathan with its left eye. This eye, a small, circular disc, brown with a black centre, was dreadful to behold. It was like a button sewn on to 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 lustre, no shimmer lay in that eye, not a sparkle of anything alive. It was an eye without sigh. And it glared at Jonathan.

Jonathan retreats into his room and covers himself with a blanket, quivering in terror. Even when he eventually summons the courage to open the door again and finds the pigeon gone, he can't stand the thought of living in the building one more minute. He packs a bag and takes a room in a hotel across town, and only through the most strenuous and convoluted internal twistings can he force himself to return one day to his building and mount the stairs to his hallway, dreading the whole time that when he reaches the landing he'll see that dreadful little bird again.

He reaches his hallway. The pigeon is gone. The carpet has been cleaned, the window through which the bird entered has been locked shut. Jonathan re-enters his beloved room, having survived the crisis.

That's the whole book, but modern-day fables don't require much in the way of either elaboration or page-length. Suskind has crafted a canny look at the silliness of panic and the anatomy of inconsequence, and he's presented it stripped of almost all artifice. The reader is given no lectures, no arias of digression, and no answers. The language is as precise as the lines of Jonathan's life, and the carefully modulated histrionics are merrily out of proportion to the triviality on every page. The combination is oddly mesmerizing.

 

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