Who hasn’t heard, spoken, or believed the big blanket, “People never change.” For it’s true, isn’t it? Except when it’s not. The moment when someone, real or fictional, gets to break free and move — whether in a big way or ever so slightly, towards something different — keeps me interested and, with any luck, brings the possibility of change home to rub into my life. Fiction can’t die as long as there are readers (and that’s a lot of us) who love the epiphanic moment. Even if it’s only a split second, the novella rather than a novel, traveling along with a character who changes ever so slightly can feel akin to going there, too.
So delightful is this emotional payoff that its promise can sustain me through the thicket of thousands of words. Imagine my satisfaction at hitting pay dirt within a little over one hundred small and widely spaced pages. Such is The Pigeon, a 1988 novella by German writer Patrick Süskind, his first effort after the success of his 1985 debut, Perfume. The first novel is famous, much talked about and loved, though I found it so wildly impressionistic that it felt thin. I couldn’t grab hold of anything within Perfume, and such was my disappointment at this that I’ve sought more of Süskind’s work to counter the effect. A few years back I read Mr. Summer’s Story, another novella that is unforgettable in its quiet horror.
The Pigeon is, alternatively, nothing if not a tale of redemption. “Ho hum”, you sigh. Haven’t we seen and done it all, read and considered everything? Shouldn’t literature wow us in its clever presentation, always showing and never telling, baffling and leading us astray before holding out some slim shred of hope for its protagonists? Better yet, a story ought to dash its characters and the reader to bits with what surely is the bleak and unrelenting truth, right? Sometimes, like a child in her cot, I just want a story. That this uplifting tale should come from a writer as skilled in dark method as Mr. Süskind is a winsome surprise.
The Pigeon‘s Jonathan Noel is an unremarkable Parisian, a bank security guard whose life is changed one morning by the appearance of that famously dirty bird in his apartment hallway. The novella spans only 24 hours, yet Süskind deftly reveals Jonathan’s entire life story in the first few sentences. A child of wartime, Jonathan loses both parents and is hidden on a farm for his youth. Jonathan is “shipped off to Indochina” where he is wounded and ill. His return home is accompanied by a humiliating marriage and abandonment.
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.
Jonathan moves to Paris and begins the quiet lockdown of everything that could allow semblance of life. He shuns his neighbors, rebuffs the kindness of his apartment concierge, and exists only to await death.
For he was not fond of events, and hated outright those that rattled his inner equilibrium and made a muddle of the external arrangements of life.
We meet him at the age of fifty-three, a time in life when the opportunity for change typically presents itself in less than dramatic fashion, if at all. As the morning of his day begins with its common ablutions, Jonathan opens the door of his rented room to find a pigeon sitting in the hallway at his doorstep. He’s terrified, “…a pigeon is the epitome of chaos and anarchy, a pigeon that whizzes around unpredictably.”
The morning routine abandoned, Jonathan finds himself pissing in his washbasin and making plans to flee the room for a hotel where he might live in perfect peace away from the unexpected. The day becomes increasingly dark and complex as Jonathan’s disrupted equilibrium sends him off kilter at work. Fractious with his concierge and nervously missing the mark with his tasks, he finds himself on lunch break lost in observation of a homeless clochard sleeping on a park bench.
Jonathan watched him. And as he watched him, a strange disquiet came over him…(The clochard) ate and drank with the best of appetites, slept the sleep of the just and…gave the impression of a firmly grounded personality in finest harmony with the world and enjoying life…whereas he now saw himself, at age fifty-three, plunging head over heels into a crisis that confounded the life’s plan he had devised for himself and was making him crazy and confused and had him eating raisin rolls for the pure confusion of it, and for fright. Yes, he was frightened!
The day’s events become more distressing when Jonathan rips a hole in the leg of his trousers and is unable to persuade a seamstress to mend them immediately. At this point Süskind has written his man into such a state of anxiety and upset that the reader might surely begin to despair for the turmoil within this “sphinxlike” character. That would be a missed opportunity to go somewhere and to bring home something extraordinary.
In Süskind’s Mr Summer’s Story, an old man walks and walks in a seemingly pointless trajectory that brings him into the life of a young boy facing disappointment and dark aloneness. There is walking in The Pigeon as well. “Walking soothes. There is a healing power in walking.” That walk is yours to take when you read The Pigeon.