Saturday, 25 June 2016

The Pigeon by Patrick Suskind Review

Jonathan Noel is a French bank guard who, for decades, has lived a very orderly and timid, almost non-existence which is one day shattered when a pigeon appears in his apartment building’s hallway. Patrick Suskind’s novella takes the reader through a day in this quiet man’s life as his mind unravels…

I really liked Suskind’s Perfume but his follow-up, The Pigeon, is underwhelming. Comparisons to Kafka and Poe are a bit much but this is still a well-written story even if it’s not the most gripping. From his nightmarish encounter with the pigeon, Jonathan Noel misses opening the gate for his boss’s limo - his only real responsibility in his monotonous bank guard job - watches a clochard (French homeless man) on the street, and tears his trousers. Where do writers get their ideas, eh? 

But obviously there’s subtext to all of this. We learn from the beginning that Jonathan Noel’s parents were killed by the Nazis in WW2 and that his wife left him for another man - it’s likely that the character’s deliberately isolated, routine and dull life is a reaction to that trauma. If he’s alone, if he doesn’t rely on anyone, he can’t be hurt by abandonment. The introduction of the pigeon upsets his delicate equilibrium and forces him into action, something he’s avoided doing almost his entire life. 

Maybe Suskind is suggesting that we shouldn’t let fear (represented by the pigeon) stand in our way from living a full life - that reaching out to people, while leading to uncertainty, is a necessary step on the way to happiness and that a little chaos is always needed? Maybe he’s pointing out that the trauma the Nazis inflicted on Europe echoes through the years? Maybe it’s just a character portrait without a message? 

Either way, the novella doesn’t leave much of an impression and at times its knowing literariness compounds that obliqueness: I noticed the parallels between the pigeon and the clochard pooping, Jonathan Noel’s meal of fish, bread, fruit and wine is like the clochard’s, and he walks through the rain barefoot as a child and then later with shoes as an adult. All fine and good but I don’t understand the parallels, except maybe the barefoot/shoes thing - the shoes are a barrier between him and the outside world reinforcing how protected he is now compared to how carefree he once was. I feel like the novella’s trying to say something more but it doesn’t achieve it. 

The Pigeon is well-written and that alone keeps the reader engaged through Suskind’s psychological character portrait regardless of the mundane anti-story. But it’s not the most fascinating subject matter and the unfocused, meandering nature of the narrative left me unsatisfied and unsure of what to make of it as a whole. The Pigeon is certainly unusual but fans of Perfume shouldn’t expect the same kind of brilliance in this slighter effort.

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