The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
A prickly little creature is the hedgehog. It looks like a pincushion with eyes. Natural selection has endowed the hedgehog with an ingenious suit of spiked armor that protects its vulnerable insides. Thus, the hedgehog is the perfect metaphor for the principal character in this novel. Renée Michel is the concierge in a luxury apartment building in an area of Paris where only the wealthy can afford to live. She has a secret she protects with an ill-tempered almost rude persona that she puts on for everyone she encounters. The secret is she is an autodidact and is better read and more knowledgeable than any of the sophisticated inhabitants of the apartment building she maintains with mop and broom. Her home is similar to that of the hedgehog. It is a dark cave-like den situated close to the front entrance. It is her retreat from the demands of the residents as well as the boredom of looking after the garbage and cleaning the stairways and corridors. In the front room of her den she has placed a television, which is perpetually turned on as a decoy so that anyone passing her door would think she did nothing more than sleep in front of the soap operas as is assumed, she informs us, all concierges must. However at the back of her loge there is a room where she keeps her books and her comfortable chair and where she spends every free moment studying art, music, literature and philosophy. It is here that she finds relief from the distress of poverty and loneliness and a means to exercise her passion for learning.
There is a second character that figures prominently in this novel. A precocious twelve-year-old girl named Paloma who announces in one of her two journals that she has decided to commit suicide at the end of the school year and burn her apartment and all its contents. As an aside: I gave this book to my daughter a few months ago and she told me as soon as she read this entry in Paloma’s journal she lost patience and went no further with the story. It is important, however, to remember that bright, intelligent twelve-year-olds who are too wise for their years might write with certain bravado meant to add a tincture of the melodramatic to their journal entries. Paloma is a bit of a hedgehog too. She hides away from her family, in her room or at the back of closets because she cannot stand their self-absorbed narcissism that makes them oblivious to anyone or thing they perceive to be outside their bourgeois world and who feel perfectly entitled to exercise all the privilege they enjoy as if it was their birthright. There exists in France a class-consciousness that is not understood here in North America and much of this book laments this hypocrisy in the land of liberté, égalité, fraternité.
This novel is written in the alternating voices of Renée and Paloma. It is difficult for an author to write a novel in more than one voice and have each sound distinctive. However the font used in printing the book changes as it alternates from Renée’s narration to Paloma’s journal with Paloma’s writing accorded dark boldface. This is helpful but also distracting. Nonetheless, the thing that makes this novel so amusing is the sharp observations of both Renée and Paloma on the antics of the personalities who inhabit their apartment building who think of themselves as being so superior but who live in ignorance and stupidity.
Paloma’s and Renée’s view of the human herd is changed forever when a Japanese businessman named Mr. Kakuro Ozu purchases one of the apartments. He has the insight to see beyond the prickly spines of the self-effacing concierge. A little appreciation and good conversation is all that is needed to inspire Renée to let down her guard and for Paloma to see beyond the snobberies and insensitivity of a ridiculous family. (In one funny scene Paloma’s mother has a tug of war with another woman over a pair of panties on sale in a lingerie shop… to give you an idea of some of the silly adult behavior to which Paloma is witness). The second half of the story is about watching Renée drop her hedgehog’s armor under the warmth of Mr. Ozu’s company.
Muriel Barbery is a professor of philosophy by profession. I felt there were perhaps some philosophy in-jokes that I did not appreciate. (I am still trying to catch up on my philosophy reading but will probably not live long enough to do so). For example, I have the feeling that she did not have much time for Jean Paul Sartre and then I remembered that there was an autodidact in one of his novels La Nausée (that I read about thirty years ago) but this autodidact was regarded with a certain bemused disdain as he was reading every book in the local library in alphabetical order as if knowledge was something you could consume like a loaf of bread sliced from one side to another. So someone with more understanding of this subject would be able to judge if this was meant to be significant or not. My shortcomings in the area of philosophy did not diminish my enjoyment of the story. I also had the impression that the author took advantage of the novel to quietly rant about some of her pet peeves as a university professor (this is just conjecture on my part). For example she has Renée come across a thesis written by Paloma’s sister, Colombe. She has chosen the writings of William of Ockham, a thirteenth century philosopher theologian and Franciscan monk as her subject. Renée deplores the way Colombe dismisses and distorts the understanding of his writing. She laments that students like Colombe do not use their talents to seek truth and beauty but condemn the work of someone who is not around to defend their ideas in order to create a convenient topic for their thesis.
This was an entirely enjoyable novel. It has an immense worldwide following and has won several awards. It can be read on many levels, especially that of love and redemption.