Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Confessions of a Concierge

Review on the English Translation of The Elegance of the Hedgehog

L'elegance du Herisson (translated into English in September 2008) is French author Muriel Barbery's worldwide best selling novel translated into half a dozen languages. In France alone the novel has sold over a million copies and been compared to Proust by Le Figaro. The plot is taken from a fresh and unique concept, with two narrators telling their tales simultaneously: Renée Michel, a 54-year-old concierge in a Parisian block of luxury apartments, and Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old philosopher and daughter of one of the most high status families in the apartments. Paloma has decided that the people around her are hopeless creatures and is making plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday.

As the reader, we know from the beginning that the two women have more in common than they realize. But Renée decides to maintain her facade of an uneducated concierge so that she may keep her job: she is a self taught literary enthusiast who adores Tolstoy, as well as a devotee of Japanese cinema. The inhabitants of 7 Rue de Grenelle would apparently be incensed if they found out that their low status, frumpy concierge was getting high on these intellectual play sessions. Not to mention that Renée simply wants to be left alone and has no desire to become the object of everyone's curiosity. "To be poor, ugly and, moreover, intelligent condemns one, in our society, to a dark and disillusioned life, a condition one ought to accept at an early age." So she pretends to be far more stupid than she is. The troubled young girl and the concierge are drawn together when a celebrated restaurant critic residing in the building dies. Kakuro Uzo, a cultured Japanese man takes over the apartment as well as a fascination with Renée. Paloma decides that the concierge has "the same simple refinement as the hedgehog: a deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary - and terribly elegant."

All the deeply delving philosophical observations about society and people in Barbery's novel provide her with an irresistible opportunity to explore her favourite theme: philosophy as applied to everyday life. This in part explains the popularity of the book in France, where philosophy is still a compulsory study and most people have a basic knowledge of the great thinkers in a way which we don't have here in Canada.
Despite its cute light-hearted depiction of trendy Paris, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is essentially quite radical in its stand against classism and French hypocrisy. Informative, thought provoking and moving, the novel is an introduction to philosophy intertwined with a platonic love story. Though it strays off topic in places, this is a worthy novel which deserves as much critical acclaim internationally as its had so far in France.

1 comment:

  1. Well written and informative, I've never read the novel however this sparks some interest to do so.