Monday, March 28, 2016

The One Year, Twenty-Five Books Overture: The Elegance of The Hedgehog

This book was written by Muriel Barbary, a Moroccan-French author who also wrote "The Gourmet" which though I believe is a separate story, has an element of connection to this book. This was originally written in French and the translation by one Alison Anderson I feel has captured Barbary’s intentions of levity. I had just completed a period classic by Elizabeth Gaskell’s named “Cranford" prior to reading this and I wanted to read something contemporary and witty. Well, cometh the hour, cometh the book.

Book Review:

Renée, our heroine is in her 50’s, a bit on the frumpy side and is a closet intellectual. She is also the concierge at 7 Rue de Granelle to eight families in this posh residence building of spoilt bourgeois families. Renée thinks that her acumen in the realm of philosophy and literature are best kept a secret so as not to disrupt her clients’ proclivities and not to mention, her employment. In truth, Renée disdains her employers for their pretentious altruism and what I call "cocktail party intellectualism,” which is to say, one will indulge in intellectual pursuits simply for the benefit of sounding astute in gatherings and nothing more. Renèe has to keep this facade of being the stereotypical help by turning her TV volume up in her place at the basement area, when in fact she is listening to opera and reading her books. Hilarity is found in how she describes the people in the residences and how in their snobbery they become daft.

The other major character is Paloma, a daughter of a French minister living in one of the apartments in the building. She is twelve years old, an introvert and is quite prodigious for her age, she studies the other characters' psyche, loves Japanese culture, Manga and absorbs many of the things in her environment. Like Renée, Paloma is not taken seriously and postulates that she shouldn’t disturb all the conventions of everyone around her on what a twelve-year old should be. Paloma’s journal entries reveal her thoughts and her genius in the book. Paloma has a dark secret she is keeping though, and that is to commit suicide sometime in June. She has laid out this plan in her head as she believes that nothing is worth living for. Her burden in life is not one of emotionalism necessarily as it is of exasperation for the humans around her. She is vastly misunderstood and does not have the inclination to implore anyone to make them see her point. Nothing is left for her to figure out, therefore she has to check out. This reminds me of Alexander the Great who supposedly wept to his mother at twenty nine because he had already conquered all of the known world at that time and there was nothing left to embark on, (first world problems).

The viewpoints of both protagonists are presented interchangeably with Renée’s written in the third person and Paloma as I mentioned in journal form. Most of the people of 7 Rue de Grenelle are self absorbed and oblivious to anything other than their own follies. They are not aware of the value of the people who work for them, not their own loved ones and let alone the tramps on the street across their building. This sort of routine continues until the advent of Mr. Kakuro Ozo, a wealthy Japanese businessman who moves into the building. Mr. Ozo initially suspects that his concierge is not who she seems when on their first meeting Renée quotes the first line of "Anna Karenina" and the former finishes that sentence. I really like code-speak among kindred spirits, don't you? So, he invites Renée for dinners to discuss their passions i.e., literature, opera, culture and even cuisine and her life livens up.
Mr. Ozo, Renée and Paloma it turns out are like-minded in being erudite and fun-loving but has to keep it under wraps.
Themes on philosophy and human behavior are all over in this book and the presentation is not didactic which makes the discourses engaging. I liked how the book held my attention despite the absence of action or sensationalism in that sense. At the world's stage, the book held it’s place at no. 1 in France for 102 weeks and has won 3 distinguished awards. It was made into a film which I am scrambling everywhere to find because I am curious as to how it appears onscreen. Other works of Muriel Barbary include “Une Gourmandise" (The Gourmet) and the latest from 2015 titled “La Vie des Elfes";  if those books are anything like The Elegance of The Hedgehog, I pray I find them for I wish to be entertained once again by her storytelling. 

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