Short Story Review – Krisztina Tóth – The Pigeon (trans. Ottilie Mulzet)

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.

The opening to the story is quiet, contemplative, subdued. A woman, the narrator, sips bad coffee in the only cafe in a tiny town. The cafe is filled with men, for whom the views from the sleepy town mean little. The “panorama was of no interest to the local residents, nor was the Mediterranean sunset, as it arrived with its tepid yellow light.”

All is quiet. The narrator leaves the cafe and sits in front of a church. Two older women sit near her, their faces grim with age and hard work. The narrator watches as a man with a moustache appears in the door of the nearby cafe and shouts at one or both of the woman. And then nothing happens – nobody reacts. The narrator notices many pigeons flying and walking about, and one in particular catches her eye:

[The pigeon] waddled in a strange rhythm, with rapid steps, as if it somehow couldn’t properly coordinate the rhythm of head-bobbing and tottering at the same time.

A number of paragraphs are devoted to the pigeons and their movement, and to the scenery. The picture is clearly set – this is a small, beautiful town, important to nobody but its inhabitants. Quiet and sleepy, backwards, but nice, in its own way.

But then another man appears, different to the man in the moustache, who was merely an annoyance. This man is bony, thin, and menacing. He speaks to the two women in a mumble. They don’t move or acknowledge him. And then:

They stood there face to face when suddenly, without any preliminaries, he struck her in the face with all of his strength. He appeared to be neither angry nor impatient; he simply had something he needed to discuss. The woman responded with more silence, while the older one continued to stare at the stones before her felt-slippered feet. The man looked away, said something to her, then struck the woman from the other side; she was now beginning to lose her balance but still did not fall. She took the next two of the blows standing as well, but then began to sway, and like someone misjudging a distance, slid down onto the ground in front of the bench. The black headscarf, which reached down to her shoulders, spread out beside her like a giant wing; from underneath her winding skirt, a surprisingly scrawny body appeared. The man began to kick her in the abdomen, rhythmically, then thought again and kicked her in the face. The blood spread, trickling capriciously in crimson veins onto the stones; the woman coiled up onto herself, but said not one word. She did not cry, she did not scream.

The men of the cafe come out to watch. Nobody helps, nobody speaks. The narrator provides great detail, lingering on the colour of the blood and vomit, the locations where the woman is hit, her strange acceptance of the punishment she is receiving. No judgements are made, neither by the narrator or the men or anyone else. This is simply what occurs.

And then the story ends with the narrator watching the pigeons once more. The beaten woman is tended to by the woman who was not beaten, and overhead, on the church, Jesus watches.

The story is The Pigeon by Hungarian writer Krisztina Tóth. It captures well, I think, the sense of estrangement from reality that sometimes afflicts the solo traveller. The narrator does not enjoy the violence, but nor is she overly drawn in to helping the woman. But would she have done so in her own town, her own country? Quite probably. But here she is an observer, and sometimes simply to watch is very terrible indeed. The Pigeon has an eerie, unpleasant feel to it, as though the reader is as alienated from the situation as the narrator. By the end, we don’t know why the woman was beaten, or who the man is (her husband? A brother? A jilted lover?) and, since nobody says a word, we’ll never know.

It’s also no accident that Tóth uses roughly as many words describing the pigeons and their flight as she does on the beating. For a traveller who doesn’t know any better, both are as equal as the other. Both are, in their own way, a perfect encapsulation of the place she has found herself in. In this town, pigeons fly about and are fed by wanderers and bird lovers. In this town, an older woman is beaten until she vomits blood, and nobody helps.

The why remains a mystery, but the act does not. The narrator will likely travel somewhere else, and perhaps tomorrow she will see something that would repel her in her hometown, but abroad evinces only curiosity. The problem of abuse and violence against women is not a matter to be taken lightly, and Tóth certainly doesn’t treat it as such, but here the impact comes from the matter-of-fact acceptance of it, both by the natives, who expect it, and the traveler, who surely does not. To an observer, perhaps all things are equal, including violence and pigeons.

You can access and read the story online here.

Author Krisztina Tóth
Title The Pigeon
Original Title: (Galamb)
Translator Ottilie Mulzet (Twitter)
Nationality Hungarian
Publisher Babelmatrix

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.

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