At the time the pigeon affair overtook him, unhinging his life from one day to the next, Jonathan Noel, already past fifty, could look back over a good twenty-year period of total uneventfulness and would never have expected anything of importance could ever overtake him again- other than death some day.
What on earth do I say about this little odd-bod of a novella? The Pigeon is certainly one of the quirkiest stories I’ve read this month. Although I should have expected something of this kind after reading Perfume by Süskind in 2014. I was completely spellbound by the oddity of Perfume, but unfortunately The Pigeon didn’t grab me in the same way.
Jonathan Noel is a solitary man, close to retirement from his job as a security guard at a bank in Paris. He is a reserved man who loves his routines.
We learn a little of his backstory – a mother who was deported to a concentration camp during WWII, followed quickly by his father. He and his sister were surreptiously taken to an unknown uncle who lived in the countryside where they lived unhappily until old enough to leave. His sister emigrated to Canada, while he went off to fight in the war in Indochina. Upon his return (after being wounded) his uncle married him off to a local girl, who happened to by five months pregnant to another man. As soon as the baby was born she took off to Tunisia with her latest lover. Jonathan learnt from all of this ‘that you cannot depend on people.’
He moved to Paris, got a job as a security guard and basically led the life of a recluse, when he wasn’t working at the bank. And he was content. Until the morning he opened his door and found a pigeon sitting on the tiles in the hallway of his chambre de bonne in rue de la Planche.
The sight of the pigeon threw his carefully calibrated world spinning out of control.
He imagined it attacking him, bringing in friends, so that he was being attacked by a swarm of birds. ‘Random terrors‘ overwhelmed him. For Jonathan, a pigeon was the ‘epitome of chaos and anarchy.’
After planning a desperate excape from his buillding and the pigeon, his day went from bad to worse. One glitch in his much-loved routine upset every other detail of his day. A day filled with the idea that he could never return to his safe haven ever again thanks to the pigeon at his door. Jonathan was clearly a master of catastrophic thinking!
He came to realise how quickly life can turn and change, that nothing is secure, ‘the apparently solidly laid foundations of one’s existence could crumble.’
Obviously, our paranoid protagonist has some unresolved childhood issues going on here. I also know a number of people who have a bird phobia – something about all that flapping & pecking and the whole ‘rats on wings’ thing. I get it. I even get the whole existential angst thing – I’m sure we’ve all had one of those long, dark teatimes of the soul kind of nights where we wonder what it’s all for. Yet, I never really got on board with Jonathan’s dilemma. Instead of sympathising or empathising, I found him rather ridiculous.
The pigeon is normally considered a symbol of good luck and well-being, not so for our hapless protagonist. It is also a symbol for transformation which is perhaps closer to the mark in this case.
- The Pigeon was adapted for the stage in a play that premiered in May 1993 at the BAC Theatre in London.
- One of the 1001 Books to Read Before You Die challenge.
- Read for Novellas in November and German Literature Month.
But if you could not close a door behind you to take a shit in the city – even if it was just the door to a shared toilet – if this one, most essential freedom was taken from you, the freedom, that is, to withdraw from other people when necessity called, then all other freedoms were worthless. Then life had no more meaning. Then it would be better to be dead.
Favourite or Forget:
Curiously, it has been over a week since I read The Pigeon, and it has lingered more than I thought it would. I didn’t love and it and it didn’t hate it. I did however, admire it’s near-perfect novella formation.
As someone also prone to catastrophic thinking, I have since found it amusing/instructive to say the word ‘pigeon’ to myself the couple of times I was tempted to go down the catastrophic thinking path. It pulled me up sharp and made me laugh instead – a much better choice than doom & gloom thinking! Although not always easy to remember at 3am.
Title: The Pigeon | Die Taube Author: Patrick Süskind Translator: John E. Woods ISBN: 9780141045269 Imprint: Penguin General UK Published: 29 June 2009 (originally published in German 1987) Format: Paperback Pages: 77 Dates Read: 5 November - 9 November 2022 (read during a roadtrip to Albury)
- This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are this land’s first storytellers.