Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Rating: 3 Stars

[Translated from the French by Alison Anderson]

“With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of Art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life.”

This declaration is made by Paloma, one of the protagonists of Muriel Barbery’s novel, translated from the original French by Alison Anderson.  Paloma is not alone in her thought; Renee Michel shares her feelings as well. Paloma and Renee make an odd couple. Whereas Paloma is the precocious twelve-year old daughter of the well-pedigreed, excruciatingly educated, and affluent Josse family, Renee is the fifty-four year old concierge of the apartment complex they live in. 

Barely acquainted with each other, they are almost mirror images in other ways. Renee hides her voracious intelligence behind a surly, semi-literate façade, and Paloma remains brooding, mostly alone, over the shortcomings of her family and the Parisian haut monde that is their social circle. In fact, Paloma has had enough of snobs and hypocrites – that’s why she has decided to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. Having made peace with that choice, her interim goal is to have as many profound thoughts as possible expressed in the form of haiku.

That is one of the other things Paloma and Renee have in common: a love of Japanese culture. They’re not merely intellectuals; they’re aesthetes. Their interior monologues are disquisitions on the essence of Art, Literature, Music, Nature, and Philosophy.

Underneath their prickly armor, Renee and Paloma conceal both an unexpected caring and integrity. Ms. Barbery has created an especially exquisite character in Paloma, an ennui-ridden child who calls it as she sees it, and she sees a lot. Paloma skirts the dangers of being a poseur by virtue of her unflinching, lacerating honesty. Once she resolves to appreciate the positive, we see her awakening ever more profoundly to the beauty all around her.  
The one distracting thing, and yes, it is a major distraction, is the tendency to indulge in endless specious arguments that leaves the reader glassy-eyed and befogged. Here is one such gem:

When we say “a table”, when we utter the word “table”, when we make the concept of the table, are we still designating this table or are we truly referring to a universal table entity that establishes the reality of all the particular tables that exist? Is the idea of the table real, or does it merely belong to the mind?

Really? Does furniture merit so much strenuous thought? All this sophistry sounds damningly like the very thing that both Renee and Paloma purport to despise – the pretentious vanity and empty ratiocination that characterizes intellectuals. 

A fact that often escapes the clever, but is never forgotten by the wise is that whereas intelligence is a tool to be used and enjoyed, Life is a gift to be loved and cherished. In its most lucid moments, Barbery’s book reveals this awareness that under the pettiness, sham and absurdity, Life throbs in ineffable loveliness, and Art in all its forms merely captures these intimations of beauty.

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