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[230] The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery


“Indeed, what constitutes life? Day after day, we put up the brave struggle to play our role in this phantom comedy. We are good primates, so we spend most of our time maintaining and defending our territory, so that it will protect and gratify us; climbing—or trying not to slide down—” [97]

The highly educated Renée Michel has been a concierge in Paris for twenty-seven years. As befit to her social position as a concierge, Renée chooses to remain discreet for fear of giving herself airs. The self-taught scholar subjects herself in a voracious pursuits in philosophy, music, art and Japanese culture. Owned up to the social prejudices that define her, Renée has long recognized that to be poor, ugly, moreover, intelligent condemns one in the society. Even though intelligence is no longer seems as adequate compensation for ugliness and poverty, she takes pride in her mind, sound and unrivaled. With cold and distant eye she scrutinizes lives of her building’s tenants.

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— [34]

Asymmetrical in age, condition, and circumstances is Paloma Josse, a twelve-year-old daughter of a parliament member who has the brain of a college senior. Raised in a very privileged background, the precocious and perspicacious girl has come to terms with life’s futility. To prevent herself from making the same inevitable mistake that most adults have made, Paloma has decided to terminate her life on her thirteenth birthday, sparing herself a life of absurdity and emptiness. Until then she will continue hiding her genius behind a mask of mediocrity.

The mystery remains intact, but all your available energy has long ago been wasted on stupid things. All that’s left is to anesthetize yourself by trying to hide the fact that you can’t find any meaning in your life, and then, the better to convince yourself, you deceive your own children. [22]

Filled with caustic humor and philosophical discourses, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is an enjoyable read. The biting humor and wittiness remind me of The Uncommon Reader. With the simple plot (although it doesn’t seem to be plot-driven at the beginning) and sudden denouement the book truly mobilizes the consciousness of literature. As fictitious as it imposes to be, literature roots in the truth of our day-to-day experience. The one thing that separates literature from reality is the ability of literature to make the fulfillment of our essential duties (in life) more bearable. Both in and out of the novel, this purpose is being served. Paloma and Renée both hide their true and finest qualities, withdrawing from the world that they feel has no place on them. But ironically they come to terms with their kindred souls through a total stranger, a retired Japanese businessman who moves into the building. How these three individuals cross paths and alter the course of their lives are serendipitous.

325 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss] Could Muriel Barbery have redeemed the name of French literature?