The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery. Published 2008 by Europa Editions. Literary Fiction. Translated from the French.
One of the big topics in the book world at the end of 2008 was the dearth of translated literature in America; plenty of English-language literature gets translated for the rest of the world, but precious little of what gets published in other languages makes it to us- a shame. Horace Engdahl, the permanent secretary of the Nobel literature committee, made a splash, and caused a lot of controversy, when he suggested that American insularity was having a deleterious effect on American literature. In large part due to the this shortfall of European literature translated into English, American writers, he argued, were isolated from many of the trends and conversations going on elsewhere in the world, making American literature less rich and interesting.
Now, whether or not you agree with Engdahl's evaluation of American literature, the small quantity of available translated literature isn't really open to dispute. So when The Elegance of the Hedgehog came out in English last year, I was excited to familiarize myself with this celebrated novel that's sold more than a million copies in France. And if you've been hedging on whether or not to read it yourself, let me just say that you're in for a treat.
The action of the book takes place nearly entirely within the confines of an exclusive apartment building in Paris. The building's tenants- wealthy Parisians, many of whom have lived in these apartments for years if not generations- form the background. The foreground is occupied by Paloma, a precocious, hyperintelligent 12 year old who writes her "Profound Thoughts" in a diary, and Renee, the concierge, who is poor but very intelligent and a bit of an autodidact who hides her worldliness behind a thick veneer of averageness. Paloma and Renee find a mutual friend in the form of Monsieur Ozu, a mysterious, wealthy Japanese man who moves into the building.
Action, though, isn't really the point. The book is a character study of these three individuals, so different on the surface but so alike in their efforts to understand the world and other people. Paloma relentlessly analyzes herself, her family (indifferent bourgeois parents, vacant teenage sister) and yet even though she is obviously very intelligent she's still a little girl. Even her vow to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday comes across as like childish overdramatics- oh, how sorry they'll all be, etc. But herein lies her charm- her combination of analysis and innocence. Renee reads Tolstoy and philosophy, but knows that in class-obsessed Paris the tenants would never believe her to be capable of anything more than servitude; yet, she takes a certain pleasure in the security of her position and when she develops a friendship with Monsieur Ozu, who seems to see something more in her, she loses her balance a little, and must surrender her disguise.
But it's a sweet kind of surrender. The Elegance of the Hedgehog takes as its theme (one of its themes) the sweetness under the surface- Renee's intelligence and sincerity, Paloma's innocence and Monsieur Ozu's kindness and generosity of spirit. It's a talky book, heavy on interior monologues and tangents- and like I said, not a lot actually happens- but stick with these lovely characters and you'll be swept along and moved and touched. It ends too sadly to be a sunshine sort of book but you'll be happy to have read it nonetheless. It's a very special, very rare sort of book that will make you smile through your tears and right away you'll want to savor it all over again. Let's hope more great books like this one make their way over to us soon.
Here's my review of the 2011 movie, The Hedgehog.
FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review from the publisher.