Monday, 12 January 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog. . .

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson is the first book completed in my Lost in Translation reading challenge and it is as stylish as its title.
The "Hedgehog" is Renée Michel, a fifty-four year old widow who works as a concierge in an apartment building made up of wealthy, snobbish people. To them she's a dull, slow and shuffling servant who is easily ignored. And Renée is happy to project that image to the tenants to divert their attention from her real passions. Once her door is closed however, she escapes to a world of books and foreign films in an ongoing attempt, not only to educate herself, but to engage with the beauty of art and life. Her world changes when two of the apartment dwellers - an introspective and intelligent 12 year old named Paloma, who is planning to commit suicide by her next birthday, and the newest tenant, a middle-aged Japanese businessman named Monsieur Ozu - suspect that Madame Michel is not who she is and set out to prove it. As Paloma writes:
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she's covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant.

The narrative alternates between Renée's story and excerpts from Paloma's two journals which inscribe her "Profound Thoughts" and "Movements of the World". In the latter, she dissects everything from synchronized diving to the spectacle of two women fighting over the last pair of panties at a lingerie sale as "masterpieces of matter" that constitute examples of art and beauty as she searches for reasons to continue living. A bonding moment with Monsieur Ozu in the elevator occurs when they realize they've both been closely observing their secretive concierge, and the three form an unusual friendship - Ozu and Madame Michel initially connecting over a shared love of Anna Karenina. Ozu's friendly overtures in particular, initiate some big changes in Renée's life and allow her to confront a painful episode in her past.

But this novel is far more than just a modern day Cinderella story (Madame Michel doesn't go to a ball, but does get invited to a fancy dinner). It explores and celebrates so many things we often forget in the craziness of daily routines, such as the importance of really appreciating - and in fact creating - those tiny little moments of life, as simple as luxuriating in the taste of a delicious pastry, or looking closely at a beautiful flower. Reading a wonderful book. Paying attention to the placement of commas. Or truly taking the time to connect with another person, whatever their age or background. It illustrates how art and literature transcends all cultural divides and is the most universal entity that we have. And it makes you think. Have you ever negatively judged a person by their occupation? Or alternatively have you ever dumbed down your own abilities (or reading passions) to fit in at a party or even at work? Even if you work in the book industry? Guilty on both counts. As such, this is such an inspiring novel (I love Proust, Tolstoy and foreign films, okay, and I'm proud of it.)
This novel will make you smile, laugh, grimace, and weep. It will make you feel. I absolutely loved it.
And now if you'll excuse me, I need to make myself a cup of green tea and find some films by Yasujiro Ozu.


Frances said...

Love this book too. Just read today that Europa Editions is going to yet another printing. The most successful title they have ever had. May I paste this in as a guest post for Lost in Translation dedicated page?

Blithe Spirit said...

Absolutely - I would be honoured.