28 April 2014

Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Original title: L'Élégance du hérisson.
 
I needed to figure out what my feelings were about this book, so I decided to write a review, the first I have written in ages. Don't expect it to be completely conclusive or deep, because even after writing it, my feelings are still somewhat mixed. I really should have done a reading journal of it.


This story of a crusty, cranky Parisian concierge harbouring a secret, and a depressed young girl with a diabolical plan, is told in first-person journal entry chapters that alternate between the two. 

Renée is the concierge, who has been trying all her life to hide her intelligence and enjoyment of culture by outwardly conforming to the stereotype of a person of her class and occupation by presenting herself to the world as uncouth, stupid, and uncultured, and Paloma is the troubled and intelligent 12-year old daughter of one of the upper-crust families that employ Renée. The arrival of a new inhabitant in the house turns Renée's world topsy-turvy and makes Paloma rethink her dark plan.

Perhaps I don't "get" philosophy and maybe I don't understand French culture and haven't read enough French literature to appreciate all the cultural and literary allusions, or perhaps it's that a large part of any so-called literary fiction that I read doesn't appeal to me for one reason or another. Whatever it is, I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand it is (strangely, considering its many faults) charming, absorbing and quite readable, which I attribute in large part to the beautiful language of the translation, and on the other hand it is pretentious and plagued with faults.

To name some of the latter, one can begin with one of the biggest: the voices of the two narrators, Renée Michel and Paloma Josse, aren't distinct enough. If it weren't for the headings of the chapters and the contextual information contained in the text (the "story" part of the narrative) one wouldn't be able to tell them apart when they start waxing philosophical. Never mind that much of the philosophy  - and there is a lot - isn't as profound as it would like to be: it's that it makes the narrative ramble and only occasionally has any bearing on the actual story.

Both Renée and Paloma proclaim themselves to be above average in intelligence - in fact Paloma claims to be smarter than everyone around her - but their reasoning and "proof" for this is minimal and comes across as rather empty bragging. The reader is expected to accept that because they philosophise, they must be intelligent. Both are made somewhat unattractive by the fact that because of their self-perceived intelligence, they think they have the right to deem everyone else stupid and judge them accordingly. This is a typical fallacy among self-proclaimed intellectuals, as if intelligence is above everything else, and not how you use it, and neither girl nor woman is using hers for anything other than ultimately empty philosophising, making them ultimately as useless as the people they keep criticising for being stupid and useless.

The rest of the characters are basically stereotypes, even Mr. Ozo, who is the pivotal character even if his viewpoint is never seen except through the eyes of Renée or Paloma. Colombe is a typical bad older sister character and the only thing I really find interesting about her is the never explained reason why both sisters bear names that mean "dove", one in French (Colombe) and the other in Spanish (Paloma). Perhaps it's some kind of joke about French naming conventions, or about class or about their parents? Or perhaps it's because both are the antithesis of their names? Paloma is sullen, rebellious, depressed and cynical, and Colombe is bitchy and seems full of herself, while both names denote sweetness, innocence and meekness. Or maybe I'm just reading too much into this?

One has to sift through the lovely but ultimately empty and sometimes overblown stream of words to find the story, such as it is. It is very short when you remove all the philosophical filler, and is so formulaic as to be a parable, one that I hate with a passion (read the book to find out what it is). The apparently budding romance between Renée and Mr. Ozo (who comes straight from the mould of the literary wise old man) injects some feel-good into the story, but even while one hopes for a happy or at least happy-ish ending, there lurks at the back of one's mind the suspicion that Barbery is having the reader on and lulling them into complacency before hitting them with something horrible, because, hey! this is literary fiction and every reader worth their salt knows that the first rule of literary fiction is thou shalt not give thine story a happy ending. Which she, in fact, follows, ending the story so abruptly that one suspects that she suddenly grew tired of writing the book and decided that here was a good place to chuck in a not-altogether-unexpected (unshocking) shock ending and tie up everything neatly with a sombre bow.

What irks me is that right up until the last three chapters the story could have deviated from formula and become something deep, even with the stereotypes, pretentious philosophy and the hypocritical lead characters, but the abrupt and, might I say predictable, ending made it really rather a mundane (and skinny) story. It read, up until those final chapters, like the first third or so of what promised to be a juicy and entertaining bildungsroman. Lest you think I am reacting this way because of the ending, let me just say that I went into the endeavour knowing full well that this was literary fiction, and being literary fiction, I knew the ending had to be either a) bittersweet, b) wholly unhappy for all involved or c) an utter disaster on a large scale. Mind you, I hoped (but didn't expect), as I always do, that there would be a happy ending. Why? I don't know, because I didn't really like either Renée or Paloma.

I still 'kind-of, sort-of' like this book because despite all its faults it still manages to be charming, but I do not like it enough that I would ever read it again.

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