We’ve arrived at the equinox where day and night are of equal length. In the northern hemisphere it’s the Spring Equinox and I’d love to say that winter finally seems far behind us but it’s still bloomin’ freezing.
Still, I’m hopeful that the weather will soon rectify my plummeting levels of vitamin D, and to celebrate I’ve chosen one novel set over a single day, and one set over a single night.
Firstly, daytime with The Pigeon by Patrick Suskind (1987, trans. John E Woods), which is a novella of just 77 pages in my edition, and yet feels entirely complete. It tells of a day in the life of Jonathan Noel, a bank security guard whose ordered, circumscribed life suits him perfectly. He lives in one room, goes to work, comes home and follows a routine whereby he tries to draw as little attention to himself as possible. Then one morning he opens his front door to find a pigeon sat there. The pigeon has also fouled the communal hallway.
“no human being can go on living in the same house with a pigeon, a pigeon is the epitome of chaos and anarchy, a pigeon that whizzes around unpredictably, that sets its claws in you, picks at your eyes, a pigeon that never stops soiling and spreading the filth and havoc of bacteria and meningitis virus, that doesn’t just stay alone, one pigeon lures other pigeons…”
As a Londoner that passage definitely spoke to me.
Jonathan manages to leave his room and get himself to work, but the presence of the pigeon has entirely destabilised him.
“But today everything was different. Today Jonathan was having no success whatever at achieving his sphinx-like calm. After only a few minutes he could feel the burden of his body as a painful pressure”
As we follow Jonathan through his day, a day beset by small catastrophes, Suskind shows “how quickly the solidly laid foundation of one’s existence could crumble.” Why Jonathan is so utterly discombobulated by the pigeon is never fully explained, but the tale is entirely believable. Jonathan is lonely and frustrated and the pigeon exposes the fissures in his careful façade.
“He had a mighty urge to pull out his pistol and let loose in every direction […] into the hot sky, into the horrible, oppressive, vaporous, pigeon blue-grey sky, bursting it, sending the leaden lid crashing with one shot, smashing down and pulverising everything and burying it all”
The Pigeon was Suskind’s follow-up to the massively successful Perfume. This is a very different tale but an equally memorable piece of writing. Determinedly grounded in banal everyday detail, The Pigeon highlights the extraordinary inner lives that could be taking place beneath the most ordinary of outer lives.
Secondly, into night with After Dark by Haruki Murakami (2004, trans. Jay Rubin) which follows a group of characters from just before midnight to just before dawn in Tokyo. A young girl, Mari, is reading in a nearly empty diner, when she encounters Takahasi, a musician who knows her and her beautiful model sister Eri. He’s chatty and seemingly unperturbed by Eri’s self-contained reticence. The difficulty of communication between people is a recurring theme:
“ ‘Finally, no matter what I say, it doesn’t reach her. This layer, like some kind of transparent sponge kind of thing, stands there between Eri Asai and me, and the words that come out of my mouth have to pass through it, and when that happens, The sponge sucks almost all the nutrients right out of them.’ ”
This idea of permeable surfaces also recurs, bring a surreal element to the story. Eri is asleep, watched by a masked man through an unplugged television set. At one point, Eri is dragged into the scene within the television. Meanwhile, Mari walks away from a mirror she has been gazing into:
“A closer look reveals that Mari’s image is still reflected in the mirror over the sink. The Mari in the mirror is looking from her side into this side. Her sombre gaze seems to be expecting some kind of occurrence. But there is no one on this side. Only her image is left in the Skylark’s restroom mirror.”
This surreal quality mixes with the viscerally real – a Chinese prostitute is beaten up and Mari is asked by the ex-wrestler manager of a love hotel to come and translate for her; characters search for and consume food; Shirakawa, the attacker, works late in his office and does sit-ups. The matter-of-fact narration is highly effective in grounding the story in a recognisable reality but also emphasising the unsettling, eerie quality of the tale. It is precisely because Tokyo and its inhabitants are so recognisable that the unpredictable, nocturnal elements are so unnerving. From this background, there is the possibility that Mari and Takahasi may begin a tentative romance:
“ ‘Wanna walk a little?’ Mari says.
‘Sure, let’s walk. Walking is good for you. Walk slowly, drink lots of water.’
‘What’s that supposed to mean?’
‘It’s my motto for life. ‘Walk slowly; drink lots of water.’
Mari looks at him. Weird motto. She does not comment on it however, or ask him about it. She gets out of the swing and starts walking. He follows her.”
I read After Dark in a wonderfully apt setting: a weirdly empty night bus (at only 201 pages I was able to finish it on the journey). I felt Murakami perfectly captured a sense of night, of the unknown, and of possibility. He uses the night to heighten his portrayal of transgressed boundaries and of what is hidden, both knowingly and unknowingly, from others and from ourselves.
“ ‘It’s not as if our lives are divided simply into light and dark. There’s a shadowy middle ground. Recognising and understanding the shadows is what a healthy intelligence does.’”
To end, a classy song choice for once 😉