Friday, July 2, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Muriel Barbery's recent bestseller, 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' caught my attention for two reasons. The first is the very title, a paradox in itself. Or is it? And the second was the row of Parisian apartment buildings on the bottom of the book's cover, some of whose rooms were lit up, bespeaking the lives therein. This very image has always struck me as romantic, ie the multiple lives and untold secrets within a defined space. Added to its Parisian setting...need I say any more?! And they say one should not judge the book by its cover!

So how does this book hold up to that maxim? Well, despite taking a while to get into this book (and that was probably due to the pace set by my previous read, 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'), I did come to really enjoy this book and appreciate its beauty, quirky narrative and philosophical digressions.

The two main characters, each with their own alternating narratives, are Renee, a seeming humble concierge of a Parisian apartment, but who has a clandestine love of arts and culture in all its forms, and Paloma, the twelve year old child of a snobbish, bourgeois family, who feels trapped and angry within such an expectant and boringly pretentious model. Paloma frames her narratives around her 'Profound thoughts' which she endeavours to collect before committing suicide on her thirteenth birthday, as these, she believes, will give her life meaning. The other characters in the novel are the members of Paloma's family, Manuela, a Portuguese cleaner and Renee's best friend, and Kakuro, a new Japanese resident, whose appearance brings healing and connection to Renee and Paloma, who ultimately become soul friends by the end.

Now, while I realise that this summary makes it sound cheesier than the most mature, fermented and smelly 'fromage Francais', its much more more sophisticated, and underneath the sugary surface, lies a rich and profound narrative, much like the sentiments of the book itself, in fact: art, philosophy and human connection are what make life meaningful within the trappings of wealth and materialism.

At times, I felt the translation may have betrayed the original text, as can be quite understandable considering the subtle sytanctical differences. An example of this was with 'can you bring .... to the cleaners?' instead of 'can you the cleaners?' While there is no obvious difference in meaning in English (unless I'm missing something?), this is clearly quite a linguistic 'faux-pas' in French. Probably subtle enough also though, as this is the point of Renee's irritation at the misuse of language, especially at the hands (mouths) of supposedly well-educated people.

This book is charming, intelligent and the main characters have a way of encroaching on your soul, so that by the end you feel a sense of loss: you have lost some more of fictions friends and only the memory of their wise words remain, and hopefully we will 'see' with a little more clarity, and 'love' with a little more humanity.

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