Tuesday, December 4, 2012
The Elegance of the Hedgehog ~ Muriel Barbery
The novel is alternately narrated by Renée, the concierge of a fancy apartment building in Paris, and Paloma, a twelve-year old resident of one of said fancy apartments. Renée uses her space to muse on all sorts of things, particularly various aspects of high culture and the experience of performing the role of concierge (middle-aged, overweight, cooks cabbage, watches TV) while being, in truth, an autodidact (her favorite word) with a day job, a truth she shares with nobody but her best friend, the maid. Paloma, on the other hand, is intensely intelligent and precocious and she knows it. But her genius is not the happy kind; it is the brooding kind, much like van Gogh's probably was. She is starting two journals - one, a journal of profound thoughts (yes, she's rather full of herself) and the other, her "Journal of the Movement of the World," for the purpose of determining whether there is anything worth living for and therefore to keep her from burning down her apartment and killing herself on her thirteenth birthday. So yeah, it's an upper.
First off, this was made for a terrible audiobook. It's translated from French, so there are inevitably some French name and titles that should stay in French, which is fine. The thing is, the readers, who both speak unremarkable American English, spoke these phrases with a very strong French accent, which did not have the intended consequence of making them sound like they might actually be French, but instead made them seem snobby, and really, there's no reason to further the stereotype of the French being haughty (actually, in my experience, Parisians are remarkably friendly). Pronouncing these words and phrases correctly but without accent would have been a much better way to go and would have flowed much better with the text. Secondly, the novel pretty much consists of Renée and Paloma musing about various things, which is not exactly riveting. Yes, it's interesting, but have you ever had a philosophical, even existential conversation with somebody? Of course you have. Could you have stayed involved in that conversation if you couldn't sometimes say, Wait, what? Probably not. So they'd be rambling on about something that seemed interesting but that I couldn't focus on, and I couldn't even reread because of the audiobook format (yes, my iPod has that feature where you can go back 15 seconds, but since I mostly listen in the car, employing that feature would be difficult and dangerous). Either way, merely listening to such a discussion without being able to respond is just kind of frustrating, and fits the written format much better.
So. The characters. Renée is kind of sweet and nice, while a little cynical, which can be fun, and she likes to read, which I like, except that she loves Anna Karenina, which I don't. But at least I'm familiar with it, so I knew what she was talking about. Plus there's something romantic about her solitary, subculture life, which consists of covertly taking in culture. Her apartment and her sections of narrative were cozy. Then there's Paloma, who's kind of a snot and goes around judging people. Sure, she's smart, but she overestimates so much and is so naive while having such a know-it-all attitude that I just want to smack her (plus she's disdainful of mental health professionals, which did nothing to endear her to me). I actually preferred reading her sections of the novel though - maybe because they arose more of a reaction in me than aw, that's nice.
Finally, there's Kakuro Ozu, the new resident who appeals to Paloma because he's Japanese (she studies the language and is obsessed with manga) and Renée, because he also likes Anna Karenina and other cultural things. His presence was...odd. He is very confident (except towards the end, where he betrays some weakness) and a little creepy, considering he keeps inviting Paloma (but not her parents) over for cookies and is hitting on the concierge even though she doesn't seem to encourage him. His presence seemed intended to move things along, since two solitary characters talking to themselves can tend to leave a novel in a rut. That said, Kakuro was a bit interesting, but I don't think I'd want to be alone with him. Or his toilet.
And then there's the ending, which is sudden and unexpected and Means Something. What exactly, I don't know - maybe Barbery is taking the whole bourgeios/working class theme in hand and making it explicit, in the one being sacrificed for the other. Actually, maybe that is the point, now I think of it, if a point it must have. Or maybe the point is that there is no point, which would keep with the earlier version of Paloma's suddenly changed philosophy.
One note: I hate the title. It's drawn from a line in the novel, when Paloma states that Renée is elegant like a hedgehog and sure, half of the metaphor works: Renée is rather elegant but you can't tell because she curls it up so tightly within herself. Except Paloma never actually explains what makes a hedgehog elegant, so the metaphor is lost. This, of course, could be the fault of the translation, in which case this aspect could have used more work in translating or they could have given the translation a different title. This was clearly a case of oh, that's an interesting line, let's slap it on the front so that it will catch people's attention. And who am I kidding, the title is probably half the reason I wanted to read the book to begin with (the other half being that it's French).
Overall, the novel was okay, though I think I would have liked it much better if I'd actually read it rather than had it read to me. At times I wondered if the novel was a sounding board for Barbery's own thoughts, but I didn't mind that much. It felt very French to me - I can't imagine many American author's writing something so plotless, but it was reminiscent of the tone of the parties my host party threw when I studied in Paris - calm and thoughtful, but very much alive.