“But if you could not close a door behind you to take a shit in the city – even if it was just the door to a shared toilet – if this one, most essential freedom was taken from you, the freedom, that is, to withdraw from other people when necessity called, then all other freedoms were worthless. Then life had no more meaning. Then it would be better to be dead.”

Patrick Suskind, The Pigeon

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The Pigeon – Patrick Suskind

This is a fine novella in the European existentialist tradition.

In just 77 pages we experience the identity crisis of Jonathan Noel – a French security guard who for three decades has lived in the same small apartment with the same job, and minimal interaction with or exploration of the outside world. Until, in his fifties, he encounters a pigeon in his apartment building – its eyes penetrating him, it’s excrement soiling the floor and its presence fundamentally unsettling his ordered world.

He had successfully managed to shut out the messiness and ambiguity of things outside of his experience but the pigeon appears and reveals the precariousness of his life – how he can’t control events, and how he could as easily have been a bum and, indeed, given the sameness of his life, it might have been more meaningful. 

There’s a great bit when he sees a bum eating sardines and bread, and drinking wine with abandon. And then, a little later, Jonathan goes and buys the same stuff and enjoys it with an intensity of pleasure he perhaps has never experienced before.

What the novella expresses brilliantly is the the unstable nature of our identities, of what we build our lives around, and how things could be so easily different.

The Vegetarian – Han Kang

Desperately beautiful and sad in equal part, The Vegetarian is a short and shocking meditation on what it is to suffer, what happens when you challenge convention and ultimately what it is to be human.

It tells the story of a woman who becomes vegetarian and, in part as a consequence of her choice of diet being rejected by her family and, in part because of a deep, destructive melancholy, gradually decides to eschew conventions like clothes and eating, in the end almost dying, in order to become plant-like.

The story is told in third person from three perspectives in the book’s three chapters: the woman’s husband, a conventional man who discards her once her behaviour becomes too extreme; her brother in law, a strange film maker who is obsessed with her and uses her madness to take advantage; and her sister who continues to care and worry for her when everyone else has gone.

We learn through the sister’s story  – and in a shocking earlier scene in which he hits her and forced her to eat meat at a family meal – that their father was abusive, with the woman taking the brunt of it, helping to explain the suppression of her personality up to the point of becoming vegetarian. But we also find the sister experiencing despair too, and reflecting that if she didn’t have a son and her sister to care for, perhaps she might let herself detach from the world too.

All this is written in a direct yet beautiful style – incredible, given this is a translation from Korean.

In this remarkable novel Han Kang channels the ideas of existentialism, of Deleuze, of Becket, successfully conveying the sense that humanity is not essential or absolute but tied down by conventions which can easily be loosened, revealing other ways of being that are both mad and natural at the same time.