The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery.
(“For Stephane, with whom I wrote this book.”)
In high school, French teenagers are taught philosophy. Or, rather, they are taught to philosophize. They are a nation keen on critical thinking, and (as believed by this Canadian) pleasured by the over-intellectualization of any event, big or small, insignificant or not.
Perhaps this skill is what allowed “L’Elegance Du Herisson” to become a best seller in France, and what enabled it to become Internationally regarded as an excellency.
If you are like me, a Canadian taught to regurgitate others opinions and thoughts without any regard to the art of critical thinking I would also recommend having your Google open and ready to translate. My two-years of middle-school French got me through all 325 pages, although most of it was guess work; and my lackluster upbringing in the Philosophy field meant that a good portion of the novel went over my head.
Here are some things I wish I had known before diving into the deep-end of this French satire. We’ll start with Philosophers, and where they fit in at rue de Grenelle. (Uh, that’s Grenelle Street for all you people out there without a French to English dictionary.)
- Hopefully, the novel’s introduction to Marx isn’t your introduction to Marx. If it is, however, have no fear because all you need to know (in context to The Hedgehog) is that his history intertwines with the history of class struggles and social hierarchy.
“I respond so very well to what social prejudice has collectively constructed to be a typical French concierge that I am one of the multiple cogs that make the great universal illusion turn, the illusion according to which life has a meaning that can be easily deciphered.” (Barbery, page 19)
- You might be familiar with Renee Descartes: philosopher and mathematician, father of modern emotions to rational thought (modern western philosophy). If you don’t recognize his name, maybe you will recognize his voice: “I think. Therefore I am.” Descartes lends his name to the concierge, Renee.
Renee also means “to be reborn,” which is shown throughout the novel by the concierges’ revitalization of self-image. (See one of my favourite chapters, “11. Rain”.)
- Paloma, whose name doesn’t take after a philosopher (or, I doubt, the grapefruit and tequila cocktail) but rather translates from Spanish to “dove.” Coincidently Paloma’s sister Colombe also translates from French to “dove.”
This could reflect her mother’s conventional lifestyle (who writes dinner invitations with her Ph.D., and who is obsessed with her plants), but is more likely in due to Paloma’s desire to flee the coop. (Or, at least burn it down.)
- Kakuro: a traditional Japanese map puzzle. And in no relation to the new tenant that causes the necessary deterrent of both Paloma’s and Renee’s life. Of course, Kakuro Ozu namesake reflects in his curiosity and ability to piece together the riddle of Renee.
Yasujiro Ozu was a Japanese film director; his work parallels the narrative of the novel. His reputation was a dual narration and the use of woman as central subjects.
These are just the main characters in a cast of delightful, unique French sophisticates. Gegene, Manuela. Renna and Kakuro’s cats: Leo, Kitty, and Levin. All, of course, named after Tolstoy’s characters from Anna Karenina.
What I truly loved about The Elegance of the Hedgehog is the sheer French-ness of it. It plays directly to French stereotypes and social hierarchy. As someone who is often sucked into the American Agenda of overrated literature, and cheap explosions, it was refreshing to read something of a new atmosphere.
If you sort of kind of liked the book, be sure to check out “Le herisson”, a 2009 film adaptation of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I was teetering on the fence about the novel (I loved it at the beginning and the end, but the middle seemed like an army crawl through pudding) and the film made me appreciate the art of Barbery’s work.