Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery

I think novels are a bit like travel destinations in the sense that our response to both depends largely upon serendipity. When your luggage disappears, and the hotel has lost track of your reservation, you spill the welcome glass of papaya juice down the front of your shirt, and the monsoon clouds are closing in, you quickly have the sense that this isn't going to be the best holiday ever. Nothing quite works out. And it's maddening, because you know that some months earlier or later, it might all have been magnificent.

I've had the very same experience with books. I've finished a novel with a shrug thinking I might have just relished it at some other time, and conversely, I ended The Elegance of the Hedgehog believing it was providentially well-timed. When we're enchanted with a boutique hotel, we overlook the dust-bunnies under the armoire, and I was so wrapped up in these characters that I didn't give a hedgehog's derriere about the book's flaws.

Paloma Josse is a whip-smart 12 year-old Parisian girl who has (quite correctly, by many standards) judged that life is stupid and pointless. She has resolved to kill herself before her 13th birthday. Renee Michel is the concierge in the apartment building where Paloma's family lives. She carefully hides her love of existential philosophy, Tolstoy and classical opera behind the facade of an irritable, middle-aged factotum. The narration switches back and forth between them, these two ladies who keep their brilliant lights under bushel baskets.

Every now and again, however, Mme. Michel lets something slip. Fortunately, most of the residents of the building are steadfast in their assumptions about her and barely notice when she says something to shake them. She is unimpressed when one of the young residents announces to her that he has just been reading Marx. And he liked it.
Antoine Pallières, prosperous heir to an old industrial dynasty, is the son of one of my eight employers. There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite—a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups—beaming at his discovery, sharing it with me without thinking or ever dreaming for a moment that I might actually understand what he was referring to.
“Whosoever sows desire harvests oppression,” I nearly murmured, as if only my cat were listening to me.
But Antoine Pallières, whose repulsive and embryonic whiskers have nothing the least bit feline about them, is staring at me, uncertain of my strange words. As always, I am saved by the inability of living creatures to believe anything that might cause the walls of their little mental assumptions to crumble. Concierges do not read The German Ideology; hence, they would certainly be incapable of quoting the eleventh thesis on Feuerbach.
Paloma, records in her diary why there is no hope for her future. Life is absurd, and only those dullards who haven't cottoned onto this fact can carry on into adulthood.
Even for someone like me who is supersmart and gifted in her studies and different from everyone else, in fact superior to the vast majority—even for me life is already all plotted out and so dismal you could cry: no one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It’s just more comfortable. And even then: I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.
Paloma's diary entries fall under one of two headings, either Profound Thoughts or Journal of the Movement of the World, in which she records her observations of motion. As her father watches a New Zealand football match on television, she is captivated by the haka, or ritual Maori dance, that the players perform on the field as the match is set to start. One player in particular catches her eye. Her observation makes me think that this adolescent girl in her pink-framed eyeglasses also has an internal strength that she hasn't quite discovered yet.
And so the haka, which is a warrior chant, gained all its strength from him. What makes the strength of a soldier isn’t the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy by sending him a whole lot of signals, it’s the strength he’s able to concentrate within himself, by staying centered... That Maori player was like a tree, a great indestructible oak with deep roots and a powerful radiance—everyone could feel it. And yet you also got the impression that the great oak could fly, that it would be as quick as the wind, despite, or perhaps because of, its deep roots.
She has very clear opinions of what knowledge is valuable, and they rarely align with those of her parents or teachers. Although they haven't had a conversation yet, one gets the sense that Paloma and Renee would see eye to eye on a great many things. Mme. Josse, however, is just one more vexation to her daughter.
My mother, who has read all of Balzac and quotes Flaubert at every dinner, is living proof every day of how education is a raving fraud. All you need to do is watch her with the cats. She’s vaguely aware of their decorative potential, and yet she insists on talking to them as if they were people, which she would never do with a lamp or an Etruscan statue.
Renee is a plain, middle-aged woman who takes no pains to look like anything else. She has as little interaction with the building's residents as she can manage. Although she is their equal (and often their superior) in terms of intellect, she knows that her role as a concierge is a well-defined and very subordinate one, and she stays within it. She and her late husband had shared the job until he died, after a long, slow battle with cancer.
Since we were concierges, it was a given that death, for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbors it carried all the weight of injustice and drama... The death of a concierge leaves a slight indentation on everyday life, belongs to a biological certainty that has nothing tragic about it and, for the apartment owners who encountered him every day in the stairs or at the door to our loge, Lucien was a non-entity who was merely returning to a nothingness from which he had never fully emerged, a creature who, because he had lived only half a life, with neither luxury nor artifice, must at the moment of his death have felt no more than half a shudder of revolt. The fact that we might be going through hell like any other human being, or that our hearts might be filling with rage as Lucien’s suffering ravaged our lives, or that we might be slowly going to pieces inside, in the torment of fear and horror that death inspires in everyone, did not cross the mind of anyone on these premises.
About halfway through the book, Paloma happens to look a bit more deeply into the concierge. 
Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside, she’s covered in quills, a real fortress, but my gut feeling is that on the inside, she has the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary—and terribly elegant.
Much excitement commences amongst the building's residents when the apartment of the late food critic is purchased by a Messr. Ozu, a refined, retired Japanese gentleman. The ladies are all a-twitter, wondering about the drastic renovations he appears to be making, starved for more information about him. Renee had let slip a bit of Tolstoy one day in Ozu's presence: 'All happy families are the same...' He had, to her mortification, completed the sentence ('but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way'). Renee learns from her friend, the Portuguese cleaning lady, that Ozu has two cats. She asks for more information about them.
“They’re ever so thin and move around without a sound, like this.” With her hand she draws strange undulations in the air. “Do you know their names?” I ask again. “The female is Kitty, but I didn’t catch the male’s name.” A bead of cold sweat races down my spine. “Levin?” I venture. “Yes, that’s it. Levin. How did you know?”
Paloma asks the concierge if she might 'hide' in her loge from time to time, whenever she needs to get away from her dreadful parents and sister to think her Profound Thoughts. Renee welcomes her to do so, and about the same time, Ozu gets into the habit of dropping by. He too has seen through her brusque facade and invites her to his apartment for dinner one evening. She eventually relents, and allows her Portuguese friend to spruce her up a bit -- new hair-do, new (well, only slightly used) dress. Renee is a nervous wreck.

After a bit of sake and some appetisers, she agonises over how to ask to use the toilet. She runs through a whole stream of euphemisms, but her bladder can take no more, and she asks for direction to the rest room, where she confronts a toilet the likes of which she's never seen. When it's time to flush, she considers the row of buttons and presses the one with a flower on it. A loud blast of music -- it sounds like Mozart's requiem, but surely that cannot be -- reverberates through the room, and Mme. Michel panics. She tries to flee the bathroom but cannot seem to open the door. She hears Ozu on the opposite side, gently encouraging her to turn the handle in the other direction. The door opens. She emerges, shaking, into the hallway.
“I . . . ” I say to Monsieur Ozu, for there is no one else here, “I . . . well . . . You know, the Requiem?” I should have named my cat Badsyntax. “Oh, I imagine you were frightened!” he says. “I should have warned you. This is a Japanese thing . . . my daughter’s idea to import it. When you flush, it sets off the music, it’s . . . more pleasant, you see?” What I see, above all, is that we are standing in the hallway outside the toilet, in a situation that is blasting to smithereens all world records for ridiculousness.
Nonetheless, the friendship between Renee and Ozu deepens; he sees the elegance, and the hedgehog begins to let her bristles drop. Paloma is also part of their secret society of kindred spirits. What these three eccentric individuals give to and take from each other is priceless. I loved them dearly.  

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