Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

There is a tacit admission of the weakness of this book in my edition. The book consists of alternate chapters in the voice of the Concierge of an Paris apartment block (Renée, 54) and the young daughter of one of the wealthy families who live there ( Paloma ,12). The chapters are differentiated by typeface. I feel that this is in part because neither voice is convincing, nor really differentiated by anything other than subject matter. Whether this is a fault of author or translator is undiagnosable by me.

Both characters are self diagnosed intellectuals who think profound thoughts and rush to dazzle us with their profundity. At times it is as if philosophy Professor Barbery has opened the window of her apartment on a stormy Paris and the wind has mixed pages of  sophomore essays she was marking with the pages of her novel. I thought I was reading a satire on bourgeois thought who's bite would soon become obvious but unfortunately I wasn't. There are also a few chapters from a Mills and Boon novel mixed through this for good measure.

We are led to know how clever Renée is by her appreciation of Proust, Tolstoy, the Dutch masters, Mozart and Japanese filmmaker Ozu. No danger of her appreciating anything modern or controversial. Her taste is as profoundly middle class as the residents of the expensive apartments who she views along the ridge of her nose. She acts out the habits of an archetypical concierge which allows her to live her own quiet solitary life unnoticed behind this front. When she accidentally quotes a German philosophy work her secret life remains safe because: "As always, I am saved by the inability of living creatures to believe anything that might cause the walls of their little mental assumptions to crumble."

Paloma writes down "Profound Thoughts" as she tries to find a reason to live. She is planning to commit suicide when she turns thirteen (on Bloomsday - one of the many, many literary allusions that litter this book. In fact it reminded me at times of a literary/philosophical treasure hunt.) She is interested in Japanese culture, from the poetry of Basho to manga comics. Her father is a government minister and her older sister is a philosophy student.

Their lives are both changed when "a gentleman in his sixties, very presentable and very Japanese" buys an apartment which is sold after the death of the father. A Deus ex Machina, he sees through the fronts of both characters and gives them some of the recognition they both feel they deserved. I'm not sure they do.

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