The elegance of the hedgehog

Posted: November 11, 2009 in Book review
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The title of this novel is what initially caught my attention—specifically, the incongruity between elegance and hedgehogs. But such is the talent of Muriel Barbery that, when I came upon the phrase within the novel itself, I was convinced of its absolute perfection.

The novel—set in a luxury apartment building in 21st century Paris—describes the blossoming of two main characters and unfolds in their distinctive voices:

  • Renee, the 54-year-old concierge of the building, an autodidact who hides her intelligence from the residents and the world at large, for reasons that become apparent over the course of the novel
  • 12-year-old Paloma, wise well beyond her years, member of a wealthy family that resides in the building, and so alienated from the broader world that she plans to commit suicide when she turns 13.

Deprived of satisfying human companionship, both characters confide their thoughts—Renee in eloquent soliloquies directed to no one in particular—or perhaps to posterity—and Paloma in the pages of her journals.

Their subjects can be abstract—the meaning of Art, the meaninglessness of life. Their musings can also be entertaining, particularly when they skewer the residents of the building, a set of self-satisfied folks who don’t bother to look beyond the facades constructed to divert them. Both characters are lovers of Japanese culture, which is dissected lovingly, even movingly. There is, of course, a unifying storyline, or else none of this would be nearly as interesting. In isolation, in fact, the individual musings of the concierge or the girl might not be able to sustain the force of the novel. By overlapping as they do, however, they add appealing movement, intrigue and depth to the overarching story.

Here are brief samples of the main characters’ musings, beginning with Renee’s:

It is a pity to see such a worthy wordsmith blindly wasting his talent. To write entire pages of dazzling prose about a tomato—for Pierre Arthens reviews food as if he were telling a story, and that alone is enough to make him a genius—without ever seeing or holding the tomato is a troubling display of virtuosity. I have often wondered, as I watch him go by with his huge arrogant nose: Can one be so gifted and yet so impervious to the presence of things? It seems one can. Some people are incapable of perceiving in the object of their contemplation the very thing that gives it its intrinsic life and breath, and they spend their entire lives conversing about mankind as if they were robots, and about things as though they have no soul and must be reduced to what can be said about them—all at the whim of their own subjective inspiration.

And Paloma’s:

When the New Zealand players began their haka, I got it. In their midst was this very tall Maori player, really young. I’d had my eye on him right from the start, probably because of his height to begin with but then because of the way he was moving. A really odd sort of movement, very fluid but above all very focused, I mean very focused within himself. Most people, when they move, well they just move depending on whatever’s around them….I don’t really know how to explain it, but when we move, we are in a way de-structured by our movement toward something: we are both here and at the same time not here because we’re already in the process of going elsewhere, if you see what I mean. To stop de-structuring yourself, you have to stop moving altogether. Either you move and you’re no longer whole, or you’re whole and you can’t move. But that player, when I saw him go out onto the field, I could tell there was something different about him. I got the impression that he was moving, yes, but by staying in one place….he was moving and making the same gestures as the other players…but while the others’ gestures went toward their adversaries and the entire stadium who were watching, this player’s gestures stayed inside him, stayed focused upon him, and that gave him an unbelievable presence and intensity. And so the haka, which is a warrior chant, gained all its strength from him.

It seems inevitable from the beginning of the novel that the paths of these two characters will intersect, but when and how they do still manages to surprise. Although I had the misfortune of knowing how the novel ends before I read it, it still seemed original and fresh to the last sentence. That is quite an accomplishment.

Before reading this book—or even laying hands on a copy—I went to hear Barbery speak in New York. Her intelligence was so humane and unpretentious that I went home and ordered the book that night. When it arrived a few days later, I was somewhat dismayed by the image on the cover—a young girl in heavy boots walking across a bright yellow floor. There was something about the depiction that suggested that the novel was intended for teenage readers, and that put me off. Rest assured that it is not a young adult book—not that it is inappropriate for adolescents, only that its subject matter is decidedly sophisticated. The book challenges readers to reconsider their assumptions about life, art, privilege, and human and inter-species relationships. At the same time, it maintains a refreshing degree of innocence, refusing to be diverted by the superficial sexual and personality-based turbulence that characterize many contemporary novels. In that respect, it does resemble a young adult novel—but it represents the best of that genre, daring to dive beneath the surface to explore territory that adults learn all-too-soon to avoid.

I would have liked to have read the book in its original French. There are times when the translation is a little too opaque—at least I attribute that opaqueness to the translation. But I haven’t enjoyed a novel this much in a while. In a word, it is both endearing and elegant. And so is a hedgehog.


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