Friday, 17 November 2017

Book Review: The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/2899.The_PigeonSometimes small events that must seem utterly trivial to everyone unconcerned can fundamentally shatter our peace of mind, above all when they break our routine and evoke without warning unpleasant associations that unleash imagination. Who has never been haunted for no good reason at all by horror scenarios of the future emerging from the depths of our souls in most vivid colours and in most frightening detail? In retrospect, we often laugh at ourselves for having allowed them to put us into a state of alarm, occasionally even panic. The protagonist of The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind almost goes crazy when he finds a solitary bird cooing in the corridor in front of the door to his bedsit on an ordinary Friday morning. The bird seems to him the portent of evil and he can’t help seeing through his mind’s eye how the fundaments of his pleasantly eventless and solitary existence crumble and give way to chaos.

Patrick Süskind was born in Ambach, Germany, in March 1949. After graduation from highschool he embarked on studies of Medieval and Modern History at the University of Munich and in Aix-en-Provence, but gave them up for good after six years. With the help of his parents, he settled down in Paris where he dedicated himself to writing full-time without much success until the play The Double-Bass (Der Kontrabass) made him known in the literary scene in 1981. In the following, he wrote many screenplays for a living along with works of fiction like the internationally much acclaimed novel Perfume. The Story of a Murderer (Das Parfum: 1985) or the novellas The Pigeon (Die Taube: 1988), The Story of Mr Sommer (1991: Die Geschichte von Herrn Sommer), and Maître Mussard's Bequest (Das Vermächtnis des Maître Mussard: 1996). His latest publication is the collection of essays On Love and Death (Über Liebe und Tod: 2006). Patrick Süskind lives withdrawn from the public in Munich and Seeheim, Germany, and in France.

Jonathan Noel is in his fifties and for more than twenty years he has been leading the predictable and solitary life that pleases him, but one Friday morning in August 1984 he finds The Pigeon sitting right at the doorstep of his bedsit in Paris. It’s lurking there just when he wants to go to the communal bathroom and get ready for work as security guard of a bank nearby like every morning. In shock and disgust he slams the door shut and doesn’t know what to do. Suddenly, he feels trapped in his room that he has so carefully turned into a cosy refuge over the years and that he decided to buy from the owner a while ago because he intended to stay there for the rest of his life. The idea to face the feathery monster again scares him so much that he doesn’t even dare to go to the communal toilet. Even worse, he knows that once he leaves the room sneaking past the bird, he won’t have the courage to return and even if he somehow manages, he can’t imagine to ever again feel safe and comfortable there with a filthy pigeon in the corridor that is already multiplying into a whole flight in his mind. However, he needs to go out to work or else he’ll lose his job and end up as a dirty old man living in the streets. His adored sanctuary seems lost to him for good and with a heavy heart, he decides to move to a cheap hotel. He packs his belongings into the same old suitcase that he brought when he first came to Paris and hurries away leaving the horrible bird behind. But it turns out to be his unlucky day and other disturbing calamities strike him…

Instead of an exciting outward plot The Pigeon offers a most impressive character study of a protagonist whose soul has been scarred for life by events or by what others did to him during his childhood, adolescence through young adulthood and who in order to escape further suffering became an urban recluse limiting his social intercourse to the absolute minimum. With great sensitivity as well as psychological insight the author traces an existential crisis that lasts exactly twenty-four hours and forces the protagonist to face his greatest fears, namely losing control over his life and being overwhelmed by the chaos all around that he had believed to leave behind once and for all coiling up comfortably in an eventless and predictable life. It matters little which are the incidents that knock him off balance because everything that follows is just in his mind. The dense and elegant language captures masterly the protagonist’s inner strive for normality and his suffering, even despair in front of the unfathomable abyss of life that the pigeon opened and that he seems no longer able to avoid. The novella’s tone matches perfectly the emotions bordering on terror. I enjoyed every word of this quick read.

Not being particularly drawn to the mystery and crime genre, I opted to read the novella The Pigeon by Patrick Süskind rather than his world-famous masterpiece Perfume. And this was an excellent choice! Already the first sentence drew me into the story and I remained absorbed in it until the end. It certainly helped that for being short even for a novella – my German edition counts just 100 pages – I easily finished it in one go. In a certain way the book reminded me of I Called Him Necktie by Milena Michiko Flašar (»»» read my review) although the Austro-Japanese novel actually begins where Patrick Süskind’s novella ends, namely with the reclusive protagonist making his first shaky steps back into society. The current read also made me realise that solitary and withdrawn characters really strike a chord with me. I more than enjoyed The Pigeon and therefore gladly recommend it.

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