Sunday 26 September 2010

The Pigeon

pigeon In 1993 I borrowed a copy of Patrick Süskind’s novella, The Pigeon, in 1993 from the library. I had only read 9 pages before being struck with the inspiration for my own first novel, Living with the Truth. When my idea struck me, I put the novella aside, sat down at my desk and began to write a novel. It really was as simple as that. A few years ago I picked up a fresh copy thinking that it might be nice to actually finish the book but somehow I was distracted and probably never got past page 12 that time. I should perhaps mention that the entire book is only 77 pages long and I’ve just read it in one sitting so I kinda feel a bit bad that it took me seventeen years to read all of them.

The irony is it’s actually my kind of book.

The protagonist is Jonathan Noel. He’s fifty-three and lives alone in a tiny Parisian flat. He works as a security guard in a bank five minutes from where he lives. He has no friends, doesn’t associate with his neighbours and barely talks to the concierge, Madame Rocard:

For ten years – as long as she had lived in the building – he had never said more to her than “Good day, madame,” and “Good evening, madame,” and “Thank you, madame,” when she handed him his mail.

He has lived there for thirty years and treated her predecessor and her predecessor’s predecessor in exactly the same manner. He is the same at work. All interpersonal communication is kept to a bare minimum. He arrives on time (five minutes early in fact), does his job to the letter and goes home. And he has done that for very little pay and poor holidays since he settled in Paris. His job title is “guard” but he’s little more than a glorified doorman spending his whole day “standing stock-still at the doorway or at most patrolling back and forth in measured steps along the lowest three marble steps.”

He had once calculated that by the time of his retirement he would have spent seventy-five thousand hours standing on these three marble steps. He would then assuredly be the one person in all Paris – perhaps even all France – who had stood the longest time in just one place.

He is a nobody, as close to a non-person as he can possibly get. And that’s the way he likes it. His goal in life is to maintain a state of “total uneventfulness”. In fact the only “event” he ever expects to “rattle his inner equilibrium” was likely going to be his death some day. Everything else conforms to his sense of order. Or to more accurate he has twisted his life to ensure that he never disturbs anyone and hopes that the care he takes in this regard with be rewarded by their leaving him the hell alone, thank you very much.

So what happened to get him to this state? In a book this short we’re not going to get much of a back-story but we learn that, when a boy and living in or near Charenton, he returns home one day in July 1942 to find that his mother is no longer there:

His mother was gone, his father said, she had had to go away for a long trip. They had taken her away, said the neighbours, they had taken her first to Velodrome d’Hiver and then out to the camp at Drancy, from there it was off to the east, and no one ever came back from there.

Velodrome A few days later his father vanishes too leaving him confused and alone apart from his younger sister. An uncle saves them and keeps them hidden on his farm near the village of Puget until the end of the war. When the boy comes of age his uncle insists that he enlists and so he spends the requisite three years in the army, the greatest part of a third of which “he spen[ds] in hospital, recovering from a shot in the foot and one in the leg and from amoebic dysentery.” On his return to Puget he learns that his sister has emigrated to Canada and his uncle now wants him to get married “post-haste” to a girl from a neighbouring village. The naïve boy does as he's asked “although, he had only an imperfect notion of married life” and lo and behold the girl gives birth a mere four months after the marriage and then subsequently ups and offs “with a Tunisian fruit merchant from Marseille.” Marriage had not brought him the “state of monotone serenity and uneventfulness” that he hoped it might.

Drawing on all these episodes, Jonathan Noel came to the conclusion that you cannot depend on people, and that you can live in peace only if you keep them at arm’s length.

Since he has now become “the laughing-stock of the village” he empties his bank account and heads for Paris where for once he lands on his feet, finding both employment and accommodation to suit his needs and temperament. And thirty years later that’s exactly where we find him. His solution to abandonment is proactive rather than reactive: he abandons the world; it can no longer abandon him.

Because the novella is such a prominent genre in the German tradition, German writers and critics have Goethe been fond of theorising about it. Many of these theories proceed from features reflected in the etymology of the term ‘novella’, the word for ‘something new’ in Italian. A seminal example is Goethe’s 1827 definition, recorded in Eckermann’s Conversations with Goethe, of the novella as an unheard-of event that has taken place. – Helen Watanabe-O'Kelly, The Cambridge History of German Literature, p.310

In The Pigeon, the “unheard-of event” is the cameo appearance of a pigeon, the new thing that sends Jonathan’s life into a tailspin. The same day I read this book Carrie and I watched Tim Blake Nelson’s interesting film Leaves of Grass in which Edward Norton plays two very different twin brothers, one of whom is an Ivy League professor. The film opens with him lecturing his class:

Passion ... is essentially and mercilessly human and the best that we can hope to do is quell it through relentless discipline. To Socrates the healthy life is comprised of constant focus by the individual to excise those forces that weaken or confuse his understanding of the world around him. He implores us to devote our lives to this kind of control, meaning our every waking moment. Socrates recognised what every philosopher and religion, for that matter ... have all observed, which is that the balance needed for a happy life is illusory. – ‘Bill Kincaid’, Leaves of Grass

One Friday morning in the month of August 1984, while he was on his way to the bathroom, after listening carefully to ensure no one else is in the hall, Jonathan sees a pigeon outside the door of his room and goes into panic. This is something he has no control over. At first I wondered if Jonathan was ornithophobic. That would explain his reaction. Birds outside where they’re supposed to be are one thing but a bird in an enclosed space barring his exit is something else. But that’s not it.

The word ‘Kafkaesque’ is a hard one to define:

  • Marked by surreal distortion and often a sense of impending danger – The Free Online Dictionary
  • Marked by a senseless, disorienting, often menacing complexity –
  • Having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality –

Kafka but the simplest one to my mind is that something feels like Kafka might have written it. Kafka could have written The Pigeon. Easily.

Jonathan’s reaction to the pigeon in his hall is immediate and extreme. His hair stands on end, he breaks into a cold sweat, his heart starts palpitating. He slams the door and collapses on his bed expecting to “suffer a heart attack or a stroke or at least [to] black out”. His mind is a “riotous mass of the most random terrors”:

You will die, Jonathan, you’ll die, if not right away, then soon, and your whole life has been a lie, you’ve made a mess of it, because it’s been upended by a pigeon, you must kill it, but you can’t kill it, you can’t kill a fly, or wait, a fly, yes, a fly you can manage or a mosquito or a little bug, but never something warm-blooded, some warm-blooded creature like a pigeon that weighs a pound, you’d gun down a human being first, bang bang, that’s fast, just makes a little hole, a quarter of an inch thick, that’s clean and it’s permissible, in self-defence it’s permissible, article one in the regulations for armed security personnel, it’s required, in fact, not a soul blames you if you shoot down a person, just the opposite, but a pigeon?, how do you shoot down a pigeon?, it flutters around, a pigeon does, so that you can easily miss, it’s a gross misdemeanour to shoot down a pigeon, it’s forbidden, that leads to confiscation of your service weapon, to loss of your job, you end up in prison if you shoot a pigeon, no, you can’t kill it, but you can’t live, live with it either, never, no human being can go on living in the same house with a pigeon, a pigeon is the epitome of chaos and anarchy... (italics mine)

So what is he to do? He resolves to gather together his valuables, fills a suitcase and flees the first chance he gets. He does his sums, makes plans to stay in a hotel and works out how many months he could survive if he lived frugally. But how long do pigeons live? And what if it bred? “[T]hey breed at a frantic pace...”

And that is what he does. What follows is one day in the life of Jonathan Noel. You would think that once he had escaped his flat then he could calm down, go about his daily business and in time return to find the bird gone. He might feel a little embarrassed but no one would know. He wouldn’t be “the laughing stock of the whole neighbourhood” which is his greatest fear. Simply being the focus of people’s attention is bad enough.

Jonathan has been so unnerved by the appearance of the pigeon that he finds it hard to concentrate at work which leads to a single oversight. Part of his duties involves him opening the entrance grille to allow the director Monsieur Roedel’s limousine in and out of the courtyard. He is so preoccupied with his own thoughts that only when the driver honks his horn does he realise:

They honked again and even waved, as if they had been waiting for several minutes now. At the entrance grille! Monsieur Roedel’s limousine! When had he ever missed its approach?

He is mortified. But things are going to get worse.

During lunch rather than going home as he normally would he buys “two raisin rolls and a pint of milk and walk[s] over to the place Bouccicaut, a small park in front of the Bon Marché department store,” where he eats and watches the world pass him by.

clochard One particular individual catches his eye, a clochard, a tramp, a man he has seen from time to time for the past thirty years. He envies the man, “a kind of angry envy”, he’s envious “of the happy-go-lucky way the man led his life”:

While Jonathan fell in for duty every day at nine on the dot, the clochard would come along at ten or eleven; and while Jonathan had to stand at attention, the fellow would lounge comfortably on a cardboard box and have a smoke...

Distracted he gets up to return to work but forgets to dispose of his milk carton. Not being able to bear leaving it where it was he trudges back, leans over to get it and tears his trousers. Quelle disaster! An appeal to a local seamstress falls on deaf ears – she has a three-week backlog – and so a temporary repair is effected with the aid of some Sellotape and keeping even stiller than usual.

By the end of the day as he lies down on his hotel bed he is resolved to commit suicide the next morning. He lies there in the dark in despair. He’s not even sure what room he’s in for sure:

[I]t isn’t your room in your uncle’s house, it’s the room you had as a child in your parents’ house in Charenton – no, not your room, it’s the cellar, yes, you’re in the cellar of your parents’ house, you’re a child, you only dreamed that you had grown up to be a disgusting old guard in Paris, but you’re a child and you’re sitting in the cellar of your parents’ house, and outside is war, and you’re trapped, buried, forgotten.

Suddenly he has an epiphany, the start of one in any case, and then he hears a noise:

It was a knock. Very soft. And then there was another knock. And a third and a fourth, from somewhere above.

And no it’s not the personification of truth. But it is a moment of truth. He packs his case and heads home to face his fears.

Outsider This is a fascinating little book. And Jonathan Noel belongs there right alongside Kafka’s Gregor Samsa, Camus’ Meursault, Sartre’s Roquentin, the narrator in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ and the starving author in Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. Likely lovers of Dostoevsky’s work will also appreciate this book, since the Russian's main characters often enter a vicious circle in which they think something bad will happen and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which can only be prevented through great determination and effort:

Dostoevsky ... had concluded from his observations while in exile, that there was more to man than reason and enlightenment. He became convinced that men were capable of the irrational as well as the rational, and that, in fact, the irrational was in many ways man's essential element and the rational was often only a flimsy construction built upon it. – Jen Marder, Mike Meyer, and Fred Wyshak, Notes from the Underground, a study guide

Jonathan has assiduously avoided irrationality. Things need to make sense. The irrational, once introduced into his life, infects his very being and what we witness is this infection running its course. And there can only be too outcomes: it can kill him or it can cure him.

I’ve searched high and low and no one has anything really bad to say about this book; most reviews grant 4 or 5 stars, the majority having come to the book after reading Perfume: The Story of a Murderer and keen to read something else by him. In fact the main source of disappointment is that the two books are very different and that’s not The Pigeon’s fault. It has much more in common with his dramatic monologue The Double Bass which I had heard of but never seen. I would happily read him again.


suskindphoto Patrick Süskind was born 1949 in Ambach, Bavaria, to the literary translator and political journalist Wilhelm Emanuel Süskind. Between 1968 and 1974 he studied Medieval and Modern History in Munich and Aix-en-Provence before becoming a freelance screenwriter. In 1980 The Double Bass, his first play, became an international success and has been shown on stage in Germany, Switzerland, London, Edinburgh and New York. In 1985 he published his only novel to date, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, which goes on to be made into a successful film. In 1987 he rejects all prizes (the FAZ Literaturpreis and the Tukan-Preis, most famously), dodges the media and slowly withdraws from the public. Next to nothing has been heard of him since.

Since The Pigeon in 1987 he has published only two works of fiction: in 1991 the short story Mr. Summer’s Story, and, in 1995, his short story collection Three Stories and a Reflection. A collection of essays, On Love and Death appeared in 2006.

Without ever granting interviews or making public appearances, Patrick Süskind lives in Munich and France with his partner, a publisher from Munich, and their son. He continues to work on screenplays.

Apart from inspiring my own novel, The Pigeon has also been the basis for a performance piece by John Wild & John Mowat called The Pigeon Affair and a movement-based performance work by the Faculty of Creative Arts at the University of Woollongong in Australia, called simply, Pigeon.


  1. I am going to have to pick this one up Jim. I loved Perfume and made the same connections to Camus and Hamson as you did. I thought the movie was lacking compared to the book, which was met with some mediocre reviews due to the fact that people were expecting a crime thriller and what they got was a deeply profound social statement.

    Thanks for profiling this.

  2. Thank you, Cheryl. I also have a review of The Story of Mr Sommer written which I'll post in due course. I've never seen Perfume or read the book. I'm not sure I'd like it. It strikes me as very different from the rest of his writing.

  3. Thanks for your review, this sounds a thoroughly intriguing read.
    best wishes martine

  4. Glad you liked the review, Martine, and thanks for the comment.

  5. "Jonathan’s reaction to the pigeon in his hall is immediate and extreme. His hair stands on end, he breaks into a cold sweat, his heart starts palpitating. He slams the door and collapses on his bed expecting to “suffer a heart attack or a stroke or at least [to] black out”. His mind is a “riotous mass of the most random terrors”. You will die, Jonathan, you’ll die, if not right away, then soon ..."

    I wonder if his extreme reaction might have had less to do with panic over maybe having to take care of the bird than with the superstition that if a bird flies or comes into your house, that someone in the house will soon die (i.e., 'fate' announcing his death.)

    A wonderfully written book review, making me want to get this book. Thanks, Jim.

  6. Not really, Annie, but those are not unreasonable suggestions. This is a man hemmed in on all sides a man obsessed by order. The bird represents chaos. The irony is that for the past five years I've lived with a bird (a cockatiel) and he loves order: he gets up at the same time, eats at the same time, goes to bed at the same time, molts at the same time every year. He's like a wee wind-up toy.

  7. Thanks Jim, I remember rushing out to buy this on first publication because I was so enamoured of 'Perfume'
    And was one of those... disappointed. Re-read it a couple of years back. It is a stunning book.

  8. Thanks for that, Titus. The thing is I have other books on my shelves that I've carted around for years and never been able to get into. I wonder how many other gems I have sitting there still to be read?

  9. Good review, Jim. Sounds like something right up my alley. I was entirely unaware of Suskind until two weeks ago when I rented the movie of Perfume. I liked it a lot, thought Tykwer's direction was awesome, but suspected the novel could be even better, deeper. Still not sure if I'll read Perfume, my list is too long, but The Pigeon sounds agreeably short. And nicely dark... those irrational decisions we make that spin our lives out of orbit are favorite topics for me (once again, see Auster...).

  10. Then all I can say, Brent, is that you should rush over to Amazon and order yourself a copy right now.

  11. This was always one of my favorite books, along with The Hermit, by Ionesco, and, oddly enough, The Green Child by Herbert Read. Glad to read your wonderfully thoughtful review! Thank you.

  12. Thanks for the feedback, Pamela. Interesting that your other two favourite books are by authors who only ever wrote one novel.


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