If you like to contemplate at great length the meaning of life and death, your purpose in this world, the effects of great literature, art, and music on you, then you may find Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog fascinating. Or you may not. Maybe you will feel the way I did: some chapters I loved, and some I just wanted to skip.
The novel is literary, not driven by plot (which is almost non-existent, by the way), but sometimes it doesn’t feel like fiction, but rather a compilation of essays, through which the author wanted to express her philosophical views on various things. She, of course, put her words into the mouths of her two protagonists: 54-year-old Renee Michel and 12-year-old Paloma Josse.
Renee and Paloma are different in age and social status (Renee is a concierge in the building where the rich live, and Paloma is one of the tenants), but they have a few things in common: They are both extremely bright autodidacts; they both hide their intelligence from everyone, pretending to be mediocre; and they are both obsessed with Japanese culture. Oftentimes, they both ramble on and on about things that make you feel lost and, frankly, unmoved.
Renee reads Kant, Marx, and she loves great classical literature so much that she names her cats after her favorite writers (her last cat’s name is Leo, after Leo Tolstoy), and she constantly cites from classics (Anna Karenina, for one). She’s surely a highly unconventional concierge, but she camouflages the fact so expertly that no one is aware of her intellect. She thinks that she, a “pauper,” is “invisible” to her affluent tenants, yet she doesn’t do anything to challenge that. She just watches them and judges and mocks them.
Later on, Renee asks herself, “What is the purpose of intelligence if it is not to serve others?” The exact question I kept asking myself throughout the novel. Well, she thinks she has a good reason for that, which to me seems debatable, if not downright stupid.
Paloma, a precocious child, philosophizes about her own life, as well as life in general: “Don’t we all deal with life the way we do our military service?” What is her solution? On her 13th birthday, to burn her apartment and then commit suicide. Well, just like any spoiled, selfish, self-absorbed kid, not caring about others.
Doubting the value of life, Renee at least finds the solution, saying, “At times like this you desperately need Art.” And you think, Halleluiah! 🙂 Actually, I like the way she says it: “When something is bothering me, I seek refuge. No need to travel far: a trip to the realm of literary memory will suffice. For where can one find more noble distraction, more entertaining company, more delightful enchantment than in literature?” I feel the same way.
The second half of the novel picks up the pace a bit, when a new tenant arrives on the scene—a wealthy Japanese man buys the whole fourth floor of the building. Through Mr. Ozu, Renee and Paloma finally meet “properly” and the three of them become friends.
To sum it up, although I find the characters not very believable, overall, I’m glad I’ve read this unique novel because while reading it, I couldn’t help but think about the meaning of my life, and the role art and literature play in it.
A couple of quotes that I especially like:
“We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors.” Well, really, we do make an opinion of others based on our own criteria, our vision of life, etc.
“If you have but one friend, make sure you choose her well.” Wise advice, isn’t it?