Sunday, 28 August 2016

Book of the Month: The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barberry)

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, the second novel of the French writer Muriel Barberry, became a sensation upon its publication. The novel sold more than a million copies in France alone. It has since been translated into more than thirty languages, and has sold 2.5 million copies worldwide.

The novel consists entirely of the divulgence of the inner worlds of its two protagonists: Renee, who is the concierge of a grand Parisian apartment building on the left bank, and Paloma, a twelve-year-old girl who lives with her parents and older sister on the fifth floor apartment of the building.

Both Renee and Paloma have three things in common: both have very high opinions of their self-worth; both nurture a healthy contempt for the world they inhabit; and both go to great lengths not to let anyone know how really clever they are.

As far as the self-centred, self-absorbed, and self-interested inhabitants of the building are concerned, Renee Michel is just a solidly constructed  unanimated, curmudgeonly middle-aged woman with the sex appeal of an aardvark and conversational abilities of a washing machine, who wouldn’t recognise culture if it hit her in the face. They do not know the real Renee because Renee takes great care— worthy of a Russian double agent—not to give them the impression that she is anything other than intellectually unprepossessing. Her chief means of hiding her light under a bushel is to perpetually present herself to the outside world in a state of dull inertia, with the emotion that ranges from placid indifference to miffed petulance. They have, therefore, no way of knowing that Renee loves to watch ultra-sophisticated Japanese films of cult directors that are based on novels written in dense prose. They do not know that she is fully conversant with the works of obscure medieval philosophers and that she frequently goes to exceedingly lofty libraries in Paris, including (but not limited to) the Saulchoir, which is a religious library run by the Dominican monks. The reader, however, is better informed, and is not surprised to learn that the autodidact Renee, possessing very high intelligence and acutely observant of the absurdities of life (of which the priggish residents of the posh apartment building where she works as a concierge provide her with frequent and breathtaking examples), has developed sharp and acerbic ideas of her own on issues as wide ranging as the hypocrisies of the class system (so severe is she on the corrupt Capitalist system, of which her employers are the progeny so to speak, that you expect her to immigrate to North Korea any time), the pettiness of the middle-classes, the purpose of Art (it apparently gives shape to our emotions and, in so doing, places a seal of eternity upon them), and the faults in the phenomenological hypotheses of the late nineteenth century German philosopher Hassler. When Renee’s mind is not otherwise occupied with the dilatory pontifications on abstruse matters she devotes her abundant mental prowess to enlist the myriad character defects of the ultra-rich residents of 7 rue de Grenelle. Quite why Renee wants to keep her talents hidden from her employers— the woman gets a major panic attack every time she suspects that the residents might suspect that she is clever because of some or the other inadvertent profound comment she has made— is not immediately clear. It is not as if they will be outraged if they came to know that their concierge, who has the face of a pretty pig, is catapulted by the sight of falling snowflakes into a state of fervent philosophizing, or that upon seeing the lavaliere worn by a pretentious resident of the building she immediately thinks of Lagrandin from In Search of Lost Time, or that the name of her dog is inspired by a character from War and Peace. (And even if they do, good breeding and a lifetime of repressing true feelings should save her day and job).

The other protagonist of the novel is Paloma, who, with her thick glasses, is the kind of ugly duckling that will never metamorphose into a swan. Paloma’s father is a politician who has taken (you can’t help thinking a very pragmatic) decision that all his principles are subservient to his ambition. Her mother is a champagne socialist who thinks very passionately about the common people so long as she does not have to mix with them. Like all self-respecting upper class housewives, she has been in therapy. She thinks that Paloma is a few crayons short of a full box. Paloma’s elder sister, Colombe, is a bright student who spends the evenings drinking and smoking with her friends. She thinks that Paloma is a hamper short of picnic. Paloma, on her part, is convinced that she is exceptionally intelligent. Like the concierge on the ground floor, he head, too, is overcrowded with profound thoughts, and she formulates these thoughts either like a haiku (three lines) or a tanka (five lines). Even though only twelve years old, Paloma possesses such cynical wisdom that you see her carving out for herself a successful career as a restaurant critic (and, in the fullness of time, become a batty old woman who will throw pebbles at passer-bys from her balcony and shout ‘Get a life!’). Except that she is not going to live. She is going to kill herself at the end of her school year on the day she will turn thirteen. Why? Because life, according to young Paloma, is a farce. She has figured out that her bourgeois upbringing has been programmed to make her believe in something that she knows does not exist. Excessively intelligent and inordinately gifted as she is, Paloma is not sure for how long she can hold out against this sinister materialistic conspiracy. Her worst nightmare is that she would end up joining the adult rat-race. She has no choice, really, other than to kill herself. Paloma also thinks it is obscene that she lives, together with three other members of her family, in a four thousand square feet apartment when South Africans are dying because a fire started in their run down tenement where twenty people are crammed in two hundred square feet. So she is going to set fire to her apartment. However, she does not plan to barbecue herself in the fire (even though that would achieve both her goals) because that would be very painful. She will set fire to her parents’ apartment, then she will go to her grandmother’s place where she will take an overdose of her mother’s sleeping pills. In the meanwhile she keeps a secret diary in which she puts down her profound thoughts (e.g. cats serve no purpose as it is not possible to have interesting interactions with them) and her unflattering observations about others in her building.

Just as the reader is resigned to thinking that Renee will continue with her intensely cerebral, if ultimately unfulfilled, existence and the only time the world will take notice of the precocious Paloma is when unleashes her arsonist act, the story takes a twist of a sort. A resident in the building dies, and his apartment is bought by a mysterious Japanese millionaire who wastes no time in divining that there is more to the cantankerous concierge than what meets the eye; and that she is just the right person to discuss the significance of the camellias on the moss of the temple in The Munekata Sisters. Around the same time Paloma begins to spend more time in Renee’s lodge after deciding that she is the only person in the vicinity who is her intellectual equal. Renee discovers that she is not impervious to the charms of the opposite sex, and, after token resistance, is looking forward to thrash out the finer points of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with the Japanese millionaire over a bite of gloutof. How will it end, you wonder. Will Renee find reasons to change her views of the upper classes? Will Paloma carry out her intention to bring an end to her life? And then there is a final twist to the story.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a very French novel (for the want of better phrase). There is rather a lot of philosophy; indeed the majority of the half of the novel, narrated by Renee, consists of philosophical musings, which have no direct connection, and contribute little, to the plot. The ostensible aim of these chapters is to demonstrate to the readers how supremely refined the lowly placed concierge is, although at times you wonder whether the hidden aim is to show how erudite the author is. The novel, you get a feeling, has definite philosophical aspirations, like the great French novels of Camus and Proust. (The author, Muriel Barbery, taught philosophy in her previous life). The other half of the novel, the secret diary of Paloma, is more enjoyable (and perhaps believable), as the reader is invited not to take her points of view very seriously. The plot of the novel, such as it is, is very formulaic, and not a great deal of effort has been taken to develop characters. Renee, one of the protagonists, for all her philosophical encyclopaedism, remains a two-dimensional, and ultimately unconvincing, character. Her background and the traumas she is supposed to have experienced in her early life are so crudely described—impoverished parents, beautiful elder sister who is taken advantage of by an upper class Lothario and who dies oh so tragically while giving birth to her daughter who also—sob! sob!—dies within two days—they are almost caricaturesque. Her final musings on life and people after the final twist of the story—which I won’t reveal here, but believe me, it is about as surprising as finding deep fried chicken wings on your plate when you go to KFC—is completely out of character, and doesn’t tally at all with what the reader has until then learnt about her. That said the novel is an amusing and easy read; the ersatz philosophizing is accessible, and may even create the illusion for some that they have become wiser by reading this novel.

Paloma, the other philosophizing protagonist of the novel comments at one stage that life, like the Japanese game of go (although it originated in China, according to little miss smarty pants), life and death are only the consequences of how well or poorly you have made your construction. You wonder what she would make of her creator’s work in which she has the star role. No amount of witty philosophy can make up for poorly constructed structure.