Monday, September 28

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog"

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" , Muriel Barbery's second novel is a beautifully written book which elegantly treats the line between literary and commercial fiction. However, I must confess it didn't capture me , at least initially. Several times I was on the point of giving up and starting any other book, but slowly this novel and its characters drew me in and I was completely hooked by the end.

It's a very Fench novel: tender and satirical in its overall tone, but absorbing because of its reflections on the nature of beauty and art, the meaning of life and death. These strands provide Muriel Barbery - one-time philosophy teacher who now lives in Japan - with the opportunity to explore her favourite theme: philosophy as applied to everyday life. Clever, informative and moving, it is essentially a course in philosophy interwoven with a platonic love story. In her brief chapters, more essays than fiction, Renée Michel, its main character, offers a mini-treatise on phenomenology, discuss the function of literature in life and the barrenness of a certain kind of scholarship.

The story provides the confession of two women: Renée Michel, a 54-year old concierge in a Parisian block of luxury apartments, and Paloma Josse, a precocious 12-year old girl, daughter of a wealthy family in the house.

The two narrators alternate chapters, but the book is written from the viewpoint of Renée, with the Paloma's story woven into it. Renée's story is addressed to no one, while Paloma's takes the form of a diary crammed with what she labels "Profound Thoughts" in which she jots down haiku and tanka.

The hedgehog of the title is a witty metaphor for Renée who calls herself "short, ugly and plump", a self-consciously stereotypical working-class nobody, but despite her appearance and outward manner, she possesses a mind of the most infinite refinement and precision. She is an autodidact who loves Mozart, adores Tolstoi, is a devotee of Japanese cinema, listens to Mahler, secretly disdains Husserl's philosophy and even practices the Japanese tea ceremony in her private backroom.

In short, she is more aware and more cultivated than anyone around her. Nevertheless, her inner life is entirely clandestine and she pretends to be far more stupid and uncultivated than she is in order to keep with society's expectations of what a concierge should be.

Her unlikely counterpart is Paloma Josse. Acutely intelligent, introspective and philosophical, this precocious girl views the world as absurd and records her observations about it in her diary. She despises her coddled existence, her older sister and her well-to-do parents, especially her plant-obsessed mother. She believes her life is meaningless and has secretly decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

But halfway through "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" the lives of Paloma and Renée are unexpectedly transformed when a cultured Japanese gentleman named Kakuro Ozu moves into the building. Though clearly rich, he is also immensely courtous, mysterious and shrewd. He immediately perceives that neither the little girl nor the concierge is just what she seems and he decides to discover more about their secret lives. He quickly discerns Renée and Paloma intelligence and taste; he and Renée begin a sentimental friendship based on a shared love of beauty.

As the two characters' lifes overlap, Paloma discovers Renée secret gifts and she writes in her diary: "Madame Michel has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog", a real fortress, bristling with quills on the outside... "deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary but terribly elegant" within.

These two characters provide the double narrative of "The Elegance of the Hedgehog" and you will fall in love with both. Humour and humanity exude throughout the novel, until by the last chapter you will have a tear in your eye.

I enthusiastically recomment this novel for anyone who loves books that grow slowly and then blossom suddenly.

4 comentarios:

alfonso said...

… con la mirada atenta…

Leído muy así por encima y sin ayuda del traductor. Me alegro de que nos recomiendes esta novela... ¿nos mandas un resumen en español?

... HHK&MU desde CR & LMA

Marina said...

¿Podrías añadir mi correo al envío del resumen en español, castellano o en algún otro idioma que yo conozca? (en bejarano también me serviría).

Comienzo de nuevo mis clases de inglés el miércoles.... le he ofrecido a la profe causar baja voluntaria antes de empezar, pero oye, que se me ríe en la cara y me dice que ni de coña...¡ella sabrá!

Besos corazón. L.Y.

isabelgg said...

Y digo yo si no sería mejor que ambos los dos leyerais la novela "La elegancia del erizo", no es muy grande y de verdad que os la recomiendo, sobre todo al "filósofo" porque hay algún capítulo con el que disfrutará. Pura filosofía.El resto una novela deliciosa.

Marina said...

Cariño, ¿en castellano? Vale, la busco.

Avísame de tus post, que no me entero.
Te quiero guapa.