Friday, August 7, 2009

The Elegance of the Hedgehog - Muriel Barbery

I was walking the aisles of an airport bookstore a few months back when my eyes were caught by a book with a chic young schoolgirl on the cover. The title said 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' which made almost no sense. But in some intangible way, the book and the title made an impression on me. I had no more time to linger on, to read a few pages. I opened the 'Books to Buy' note that I always have on my Blackberry and added the words 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog'. My flight was called and that was that.

In the months since, I kept hearing about the book from multiple sources, all extremely laudatory. In particular I loved an hour long readers' review of the book on Diane Rehm's NPR show. So when I finally started reading the book last week, my expectations were extremely high.

Which is usually a problem.

Muriel Barbery is a professor of philosophy. And she is French. Which (to me) usually adds up to two reasons to expect a pretentious book. But given all the critical acclaim, I decided to look beyond that, and beyond the fact that this is a book translated from French. Halfway into the book, I wasn't sure I need have bothered.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the story of two women - or to be precise, a 50 year old woman and a twelve year old girl. The woman is a concierge at a rich apartment building in Paris, and the girl is the younger daughter of a public figure living at the building. Though they occupy the same building, they might as well live in different worlds. They seem to have nothing in common, except this - they are both closet intellectuals: extremely well-read, cultured and polished, but for reasons unique to each, at pains to present an exterior of dullness.

The book is made of mini-chapters which can only be called essays laying out the thoughts of Renée (the concierge) and Paloma, the intellectual young girl wise beyond her years. These are thoughts on art, philosophy, nature, literature, poodles, burning cars. And the inhabitants of the building. On which last topic, there is much berating of the arrant superficiality of the supposedly 'cultured' lives. Halfway into the book, a Japanese man (Kakuro Ozu) takes up residence in the building, and builds an unlikely friendship with both central characters, slowly but surely drawing them out of they self-imposed intellectual cocoons.

If you are the kind of person that primarily looks for a plot in keeping a book moving, Hedgehog is not a book for you. There isn't much in the form of a plot here. The best parts of the book are idle thoughts floating through the central characters' heads. I am not a student of philosophy. So some of the chapters left me a bit cold, with a feeling that something profound was possibly meant here, but I don't quite see it! But the journey is still worth it. There are enough spots of luminescence during the book to make it worth the while of reading through some that you can't fully appreciate.

And then there is the emotional core of the book which comes towards the very end. If it were not for the last 50 odd pages of the book, I would comfortably have stated that I hated the book, and thought it was (as feared) too pretentious to be enjoyable. But the last 50 pages changed everything for me. As Kakuro peels away at the many defensive layers Renée and Paloma have wrapped around themselves, you start seeing the real, vulnerable people underneath. And I for one, am a sucker for that trick. I found these last pages immensely moving and for me, they made up for the trouble of trudging through dense philosophic ruminations earlier on.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is erudite, smooth, subtle and moving. As literature, it is a winner. Be patient with it, and you will be rewarded.

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