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Bookstore People: "I fell in love with The Elegance of the Hedgehog on the first page after I looked up "eructation."

Date: Apr 15 2009

from Bookstore People

Last fall, Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy that picks the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature said “[t]he US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.”  After a moment of nationalistic irritation and a fleeting thought that Phillip Roth shouldn’t expect the Nobel anytime soon, I started to list which current books I’ve read in translation.  The list is short, less than one hand of fingers.  And I’m not alone, only three percent of the books published each year in the US are translated, so very few people are reading them.   If The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is an example of what other countries are producing, I’m missing out on a lot. 

I fell in love with The Elegance of the Hedgehog on the first page after I looked up “eructaton” (burp or fart):  “There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite–a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups.”  The book is told through the voice of Renee, the concierge of  a fashionable Paris apartment building (the quote is her description of a tenant), and Paloma, the 12 year old daughter of one of the tenants.  Both hide their intelligence and lead largely solitary lives, but discover one another when a new tenant, Ozu, arrives. 

Character development rather than plot moves the book forward.  Before Ozu arrives, Renee and Paloma judge their world quite harshly.  Both assume most people are dumb, Renee is bitter about the class structure that she works overtime to keep in place and Paloma finds life useless.  Ozu, as the new person in the building and a cultural outsider, sees them clearly for who they are.  Their relationship with him and each other gives them the security and space to stop hiding, both physically and figuratively.

Muriel Barbery’s only private west coast appearance will be at a National Endowment for the Arts benefit sponsored by Literary Affairs on Saturday, April 25th, the tickets are quite reasonable.  Book Soup will be donating 10% of its sales at the event to the NEA.  I’ll be there, let me know if you’re coming also.

Muriel Barbery weaves together threads of philosophy (I prefer reading about philosophy than actually reading it), the meaning of Art, literature (now I want to read Proust), music (a completely unique Mozart “Requiem” experience), film, Japanese culture, and descriptions of food that will make you salivate.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog requires thought from the reader, this isn’t a breezy read by the pool.  But, the pay off is well worth the effort.  In fact, I can honestly say that this is the best book I’ve read in three years and probably makes my top ten.

Hedgehog not only caused readers to fall in love with Renee, Ozu, Paloma and Ms. Barbery, but for the first time in my experience, I heard people talk about looking  for other books from Europa Editions, the publisher.  A girlfriend’s Facebook status update said “I loved The Elegance of the Hedgehog, now I’m going to look for other Europa books.”  Who ever read Updike and said “now I want to check out Ballentine Book’s catalogue?”  Europa Editions is a small publisher owned by an Italian couple, Sandro Ferri and Sandra Ozzola Ferri, who founded Edizioni E/O, a publishing house in Rome that brings translated works to Italy.  Europa’s premise is to bring well-translated international books to the United States.  They pick the best books, find excellent translators (read Hedgehog with a dictionary by your side, it’s full of wonderful obscure words), and market through a combination of  independent booksellers, word of mouth and hand-selling.  The New York Times reported that this year Europa turned a modest profit, quite an accomplishment for 2008. Their biggest hit thus far is Hedgehog, which the Times said sold over 71,000 copies.  I looked at their catalogue and noticed Old Filth by Jane Gardam, another book that I loved.  Europa’s editorial discernment provides booksellers and readers with the assurance that the book is worth the time spent reading it.  The distinctive look of their books–all paperbacks with a clean cover design, front and back flaps, and their distinctive bird insignia–make them easy to find. 

My next Europa book is Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorioby Amara Lakhous, but I’ve realized that I need to read more translated books by living authors.  I would love recommendations, please provide some in the comments.