This post may contain spoilers. Read at your own discretion.
Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog was originally written in French, and translated into English in 2008 by Alison Anderson. It’s said that translations always run the risk of certain contexts being forever lost in the transition of languages. I am not a speaker of the French language, so who knows what type of reading experience is entailed in reading the novel in its original form.
But I can say that unspecified to language, the book does not just function as is. It not just a story, or a mere collection of carefully selected words that entertain. In the moments where we often feel misunderstood, it is easy to start juxtaposing our views with a simplified idea of an external, more conformist worldview. I hate to exhaust an old adage, but I sincerely believe that even though we may feel alone from time to time, we are never alone in feeling it. The Elegance of the Hedgehog opens up chances to be educated, empathised with, and comforted, leading the reader to embrace full view of life’s beauty and divulges the secrets on how to constantly attain it.
Renée Michel is a middle-aged woman working as a concierge in 7 rue de Grenelle, a high-class private housing in Paris. Renée does not possess a friendly nature, but is polite, and quietly goes about her work as an invisible yet functional force of the building and its rich inhabitants. Her circle of associates is small. One of her friends is named Leo, and Leo is her cat. Her only human friend is Manuela, a maid working in the same building. Manuela’s overall personality moves and intrigues Renée, and the two often engage in conversation in the quiet time in between obligations.
But beneath the simple exterior, Renée holds a rich and complicated secret: she is an autodidact. In fact, her cat, Leo, is named after Tolstoy, and her favourite book is Anna Karenina. She also enjoys Japanese art-films. Versed in literature, philosophy, the arts, and contemporary culture, all of which is considers to be the gifts of the rich, she is not without opinions about the residents of 7 rue de Grenelle. Having grown up poor and convinced of being doomed to a life of being eternally unremarkable, she lives with the idea that the stark difference in classes between the residents and the service staff is the reason behind the inherent inability to get along. She also figures that is precisely why she is constantly seen as invisible. But with her immense knowledge, she fears being “found out”, and hides her intelligence with maintaining brief conversations with the residents, and concealing her strong command of language with strategically placed grammatical errors.
Residing in the fourth floor of the building is the Josses, a family of four. The youngest member in the family is a 12-year-old girl named Paloma, a fellow autodidact, but that isn’t her big secret. She is convinced that life is devoid of anything good. After feeling like a burden and a pest to her parents and older sister Colombe, she decides to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. After devising a plan on how to carry about her final task, she keeps two journals to record her observations of the world around her and for her profound thoughts on an array of subjects, a documentation of her final months. Her writing reflects eloquence and depth of understanding for someone far beyond a dozen years, and that is easily masked by her interest in manga and other things pertaining to the Japanese culture.
Both Renée and Paloma have been given the trial of underplaying their respective secrets in order to make themselves appear inconspicuous to general society. When explaining the details of two games to someone who claimed the games were similar merely because of its physical appearance, Paloma is exposed to the culture of shame that is associated with an outspoken youth: the subjugation to the not-always-true relationship between age and wisdom. (Paloma happened to be correct in her assertions.) Renée herself almost openly celebrates beautiful grammar when in conversation with a doctor. Both characters also hold a profound interest in the cultures of the East. But for most of the book, while social convention requires cursory greetings when passing by each other in the halls, they do not see each other. That is, until someone in the building dies, and his apartment is rented by someone other than his family. The news of a new neighbour stirs the entire building, because all apartments in 7 rue de Grenelle have been family inheritances that go several generations back. The concept is that a new neighbour is, by default, an intruder.
His name is Kakuro Ozu, a handsome Japanese gentleman. The other residents do not treat him as an intruder, and are more enthralled by his presence — and his wealth. This concept does not go unnoticed by Renée. He has a strikingly handsome assistant, and carries himself with grace. Rousing the enthusiasms of both Paloma and Renée, (the former he meets first), it is unsurprising that through this man the suicidal little girl and the unfriendly concierge finally progress beyond pleasantries. In the events following that fateful meeting, Paloma discovers little hints of beauty in life just as she was about to give up on it, Renée confronts a very dark secret that is not even revealed to the reader until the very end, allowing her to view the world around her in slightly brighter colours. All three of them ultimately learn that being vulnerable with their secrets to each other led with a profound dependence on each others’ friendships. Each of these three characters eventually confront their fears, doubts, and misconceptions, allowing them a greater capacity to love, especially during the most critical points of their respective lives.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, written by a professor of philosophy, is slightly heavier than the average modern novel. The complexity of word choice may result in a slightly longer than average time taken to complete the story. But perhaps that is the point of philosophy: it is equipped with heavy explanations precisely because it is not meant to be absorbed as a lump semester of lessons. It should be sampled in short bursts, allowing just the perfect length of a grace period to personally experience. Just as well; I wanted to savour every page.
It is an enjoyable read. The snippets of philosophy, occasional humour, and the surprising appearances of several bits of popular culture — Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” being one prime example — makes the novel a delectable concoction of stories and lessons. Renée Michel comes off as endearing, and it is easy to devour the various musings of Paloma Josse. The two central characters are exciting, and I remember looking forward to when turning to the page that holds the words that describe their initial proper meeting.
I would like to share two of my favourite quotes from this novel. Both are from Paloma. The first is about building and the preservation of life. Being in a profession whereby building something is an integral part of the design process — not to mention, my personal belief in a good design’s connection with not overpowering the environment around it — it struck a chord with me.
“Any game where the goal is to build territory has to be beautiful. There may be phases of combat, but they are only means to an end, to allow your territory to survive. One of the most extraordinary aspects of the game of go is that it has been proven that in order to win, you must live, but you must also allow the other player to live. Players who are too greedy will lose: it is a subtle game of equilibrium, where you have to get ahead without crushing the other player. In the end, life and death are only the consequences of how well or how poorly you have made your construction… you live, you die, these are consequences. It’s a proverb for playing go, and for life.”
The second is an honest insight about the perseverance of the human spirit in the midst of unpredictability. Oddly enough, when I read this, I immediately saw it as the possible reason behind why I am gravitated towards fictional characters who have a heart of gold within a tough exterior. When beauty is revealed, although rare, it makes the remaining ordinary instances more bearable.
“I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created an interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never. Yes, that’s it, an always within never.”
Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the type of novel that can reach out to a reader who feels down. It teaches, empathises, and comforts, directing the reader to the idea that life is an eternal pursuit of beauty: the default balance of nature, correct grammar, harmonic elements within an interior space, the seamless flow of conversation between two friends, the building of something timeless, and the capacity to love and be loved up until the moment of one’s death. The full realisation of this mission should be able to convince even the most despaired of souls that life is worth seeing through.