Monday 30 April 2018

The Pigeon

When I borrowed The Pigeon from one of my bookgroup ladies a few months ago I'd never heard of it. Naturally I'd heard of one of Patrick Süskind's other books, indeed his debut, Perfume. It was a sensation in the 80s, and I read it way back then. I remember loving it. But I barely remember anything about it. A little, but not all that much. I don't think that I even knew that Peter Süskind had written any other books.

I did borrow The Pigeon some months ago now, and even though my bookgroup lady has been very gracious about letting me borrow it for so long I wanted to get it read. So I picked it up during the Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon this weekend. And I'm so very glad I did, it was simply amazing. Mind blowing really.

The Pigeon is the story of a simple, rather nondescript man, who is really rather unusual. Jonathan Noel is a 50 something security guard working what could be a rather dreary job at a bank in Paris. Everyday is the same routine. Although Jonathan revels in this. He takes pleasure in the "total uneventfulness" of his life. Which is not surprising really, as every significant person is despatched with in the first three pages of the book- his parents to the Nazis, his sister to Canada, and his wife to a "Tunisian fruit merchant from Marseilles". His rather spartan room has become "his beloved".
As a result of all these many acquisitions, the room had of course become smaller still, growing inwardly, as it were, like an oyster encrusted with mother-of-pearl, and in its diverse sophisticated installations resembled more a ship's cabin or a luxurious Pullman compartment than a simple chambre de bonne. But its essential character had been maintained down through those thirty years: it was and would remain Jonathan's island of security in a world of insecurity, his refuge, his beloved - yes, for she received him with a tender embrace each evening when he returned home, she offered warmth and protection, she nourished both body and soul, was always there when he needed her and did not desert him. 
The Pigeon is largely set over a single day in Paris (that's always a good start for me at least). And more particularly on the Left Bank. Jonathan works on Rue de Sèvres, which is where I stayed for six weeks in 2013, so I know the area the book is set very well. Naturally that thrilled Francophile me. Jonathan lives nearby and when he walks rue du Bac, visits Bon Marche (which was my corner shop back in 2013), or walks rue de Vaugirard to the Jardin du Luxembourg (one of my very favourite spots in Paris) I pretty much squealed with delight. I've done all those things, and walked those streets many, many times. I've even eaten my lunch in Square Boucicat where Jonathan eats his lunch. I didn't however watch a homeless man shitting in the street and have existential thoughts about the "essence of human freedom". Next visit to Paris I'll have to visit rue de la Planche, where Jonathan lives. 

The story starts when Jonathan finds a pigeon outside his door one morning on the way to the share bathroom. It is a hot Friday morning in August 1984 and Jonathan is getting up and ready for work. Jonathan was in the habit of listening at his door to ensure that noone else was in the hall, or heaven forbid meeting a fellow resident at the toilet door. That had already happened once, "in the summer of 1959, twenty-five years before". 
He had almost set foot across the threshold, had already raised the foot, his left, his leg was in the act of stepping - when he saw it. It was sitting before his door, not eight inches from the threshold, in the pale reflection of dawn that came through the window. It was crouched there, with red, taloned feet on the oxblood tiles of the hall and in sleek, blue-tray plumage: the pigeon. 
Jonathan's controlled life then spirals out of control. He ponders how he is allowed to kill a person (because of his work in security) but not a pigeon
... a pigeon is the epitome of chaos and anarchy, a pigeon that whizzes around unpredictably, that sets its claws in you, picks at your eyes, a pigeon that never stops soiling and spreading the filth of havoc of bacteria and meningitis virus, that doesn't just stay alone, one pigeon lures other pigeons that leads to sexual intercourse and they breed at a frantic pace, a host of pigeons will lay siege, you won't be able to leave your room ever again, will have to starve, will suffocate in your excrement, will have to throw yourself out of the window and lie there smashed on the pavement...
As Jonathan's life spirals the writing changes. Some pages are completely full of words. No paragraphs, no breaks. And yet this slim little novella (a mere 77 pages) is utterly captivating. I really loved it. It's one of those books that you want to reread straight away, and I think I will reread it this week. Even I can inhale it very quickly. 

I can't remember the style of Perfume after so many years but there are blurbs for it on the back cover of The Pigeon, that compare it to Kafka. "In a manner reminiscent of Kafka in its fearsome triviality and its bleak description of vulnerability." The back cover also says that The Pigeon is on the same theme as Perfume, which they described as obsession and disgust. Although I'm not exactly sure that The Pigeon is about either. 

Patrick Süskind hasn't published anything for over 10 years. He is apparently a recluse. He is German, writes in German, and yet both of the books I've read have been set in Paris. As he doesn't grant interviews I guess I won't find out why. Still I plan to seek out all of his work. I want to reread The Pigeon for a start. I should reread Perfume too. And have a go at Kafka. I think it's time.

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