I think I’ve been very lucky in my reading choices this year. And it keeps getting better. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery has been on my wishlist for a long time until my happening sister got it before me. Lucky for me, she’s the sharing sort, so I finally brought it home where it sat on my shelf for months. And you know what, I wish I’d reached out sooner for this book because it’s probably my favourite book of the year so far. I loved everything about it. The subversive humour, the gentle warmth, the spiky asides. Everything. Even the ending, which broke my heart a little but which brought home the message that I think Barbery was trying to make in a gently meandering way throughout the book.
I loved the main character Renée Michel, the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment block on the Left Bank. I also particularly loved Paloma Josse, the lonely, precocious and cynical 12 year old set apart from her peers by her acute intelligence and who is contemplating suicide. And most of all, I loved Kakuro Ozu, the gentle Japanese businessman who moves into the apartment block and is the catalyst that brings about the changes that everyone desperately longs for. It was a pleasant surprise for me to find a Japanese connection in this novel as all I knew about it was the concierge who hid behind a mask of ignorance and the clever child who both share a love of the philosophical.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog was smart, funny and made you see the foibles and petty prejudices of the middle classes, and the difficulty in which people who don’t share the same views find themselves. Not that Barbery is saying that being different is good or that following the crowd is mindless and stupid. It’s not as simple as that, of course, and Barbery should know since she’s a philosophy prof and spends her career thinking about these sorts of things.
For example, take Renée’s musings on being a concierge:
"Similarly it has been decreed that concierges watch television interminably while their rather large cats doze, and that the entrance to the building must smell of pot-au-feu, cabbage soup or a country-style cassoulet. I have the extraordinary good fortune to be the concierge of a very high-class sort of building. It was so humiliating for me to have to cook such loathsome dishes that when Monsieur de Broglie – the State Councillor on the first floor – intervened (an intervention he described to his wife as being ‘courteous but firm’, whose only intention was to rid our communal habitat of such plebeian effluvia), it came as an immense relief, one I concealed as best I could beneath an expression of reluctant compliance." (p.16)
And regarding one of Paloma’s pet peeves:
My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raging fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats. She’s vaguely aware of their decorative potential, and yet she insists on talking to them as if they were people, which she would never do with a lamp or an Etruscan statue. It would seem that children believe for a fairly long time that anything that moves has a soul and is endowed with intention. My mother is no longer a child but she apparently has not managed to conceive that Constitution and Parliament possess no more understanding than the vacuum cleaner. (p.47)
I love her. And don’t you love the cats’ names? Hysterical.
Barbery’s tale is peopled with characters who go to great lengths to hide who they really are behind a facade created to placate others into believing that everything is in their rightful place and the social etiquette is observed. However, there is always the danger of exposure which underpins their daily routine. It seems as though Barbery’s characters feel that being alone may be the answer, but when they meet someone who sees them for who they are, something changes.
Some may find this book pretentious, but I found it warm, kind and hysterically funny. It is, after all, a book about friendship. So before I gush too much, I urge you to try this. I, on the other hand, am going back to try Barbery’s first offering, The Gourmet which features one of the other residents in Renée’s apartment block and is also published by Gallic Books. Or I may just go back and read this book again. Wonderful!
I read this for Paris in July and also for the TBR 2010 Challenge. Yay, progress.