In a matter of a couple of pages the whole of his life is summed up bringing us up to the day of the pigeon incident. He lives out his existence in a rented room, 11 feet by 7, containing the barest essentials for life. He goes from there to work as a security guard at a bank, returning at night to a solitary routine of food, sleep and avoiding his fellow inhabitants. We get a detailed description of his room, including the books on his shelf. His attachment to his tiny personal space is evident in the care he lavishes on her (yes, the room strangely is allocated a gender), to the extent that he is scrimping to purchase the room from his landlady, to secure their lifelong bond.
"He had already paid forty-seven thousand new francs. The remaining eight thousand were due at the end of the year. And then she would finally be his and nothing in the world would ever be able to separate them - him, Jonathan, and his beloved room - one from the other, until death did them part." (p.7)
But his precisely controlled and uneventful life is upended one morning when he opens the door to go and use the communal toilet and finds a pigeon in the hallway. Now where Ivan Denisovitch was clever and adaptable, turning new situations and events to his advantage, Jonathan Noel is stopped in his tracks by anything out of the ordinary. It's as if the world has come to an end. It was slightly disconcerting because we had not learned enough about him to quite understand why he reacts so violently so you have to just go with the flow of his extreme panicked reaction to the event. So he packs some possessions and pretends to just go to work, with plans to live the remainder of his life in a cheap hotel until his savings run out.
The day goes from bad to worse. He used to bear the tedium of his role with a sphinx-like trance but today he cannot concentrate and his usual calm controlled demeanour is gone and he finds himself neglecting his responsibilities. After he fails to open the gate for the boss's limousine he has almost begun to give in to the collapse of his world:
"He had arrived at the lowest of the marble steps; he stepped up on to it and tried to stand to attention again. He noticed at once that he was not succeeding. His shoulders wouldn't go square any more, his arms dangled at his trouser seams. He knew what a ridiculous figure he made at that moment, and he could do nothing about it. In his despair he looked at the pavement, at the street, at the café opposite. The shimmering in the air had ceased. Things stood on the plumb again, the lines ran straight, the world lay clear before his eyes. He heard the noise of the traffic, the hiss of the bus doors, the shouts of the waiters from the café, the clattering of the women's high -heeled shoes. Neither his vision nor his hearing was in the least affected. But sweat was running in streams from his brow. He felt weak. He turned around, climbed the second step, climbed the third step, and took up position in the shade of the column beside the outer doors of bulletproof glass. He crossed his hands behind his back so that they touched the column. Then he let himself fall gently back, against his own hands and against the column, and leaned, for the first time in his thirty-year career of service. And for a few seconds he closed his eyes. He was so very ashamed of himself." (p37-8)
It is interesting how such a description can speak volumes about the person being described, "for the first time" tells you exactly what sort of man he is and how he has lived his life and just why he feels such extremes of despair.
At the end of the day he walks for hours and then takes himself off to a cheap hotel room even smaller (if possible) than the room he usually lives in. It is described as coffin-like, which is somewhat symbolic, as he has an experience akin to resurrection, and he gathers all his strength to risk a return to his room, and the dreaded pigeon in the corridor. I was left wondering if he life would ever be the same again, what the long term consequences might be of this 24 hour exile from everything that gave he life meaning and structure. In a way that is what was so good about this story, it left you with much to ponder. It is a story told without pretension. It also made me think about the fragility of existence and the whole thing could easily be read as an extended metaphor. Or maybe just a story about a pigeon.