THE PIGEON by Patrick Suskind


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Suskind, German author of the vivid, stylish, but overrated Perfume (1986), a fable of human stink, now offers a more conventional, clinical serving of dour existentialism: one day in the stultifying life of Paris bank-guard Jonathan Noel--whose narrow, rigidly controlled existence is thrown into fearsome chaos by a tiny invasion from nature. Now past 50, Noel lost his parents to a concentration camp in 1942--and has ever since, only half-understandably, sought ""monotone serenity and uneventfulness."" So, after being abandoned by his new wife in 1954, Noel carved out his niche: the impassive bank job; utterly regular, utterly solitary habits; a tiny seventh-floor-walkup room, being purchased outright on an installment plan after 30 years of renting (""the only thing that had proved dependable in his life""). But then, ""in August 1984, on a Friday morning,"" Noel opens his door, sees a pigeon (""the epitome of chaos and anarchy"") crouching right there in the hall--and becomes unhinged: ""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. . ."" Terrified of further encounters with the pigeon, Noel flees with a packed suitcase through green spatterings of bird-dirt in the hall, ""certain he would never be able to return."" For the first time he is absent-minded at the bank; he's filled with ""raging self-hatred,"" especially after tearing a hole in his trousers; he imagines himself becoming like the local bum he sees ""shitting in the street."" Amid echoes of Perfume, he is soon railing against the hot, stinking city and everything in it--till, after a near-suicidal night in a flophouse, the status quo is quietly restored. Possibly symbolic (Noel=Christ?), probably readable as a man-vs.-universe fable, marginally amusing in a cruel way--and grimly impressive, at taut novella-length, as a cool close-up study of severe obsessive-compulsive neurosis.

Pub Date: May 24th, 1988
Publisher: Knopf