Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Muriel Barbery
There’s a famous quote by D.H. Lawrence which goes: ‘There’s lots of good fish in the sea... but the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself you are likely to find very few good fish in the sea.’
The Elegance of the Hedgehog tells the stories of two such individuals – neither mackerel nor herring – both female and both cursed by insatiable intellect to think profound thoughts all their lives.
Paloma, from a privileged background, cannot watch the haka at a game of rugby but she must spout about ‘motionless movement’; Renee, a concierge, obsesses about phenomenology until she reaches the conclusion with ‘immense relief’ that phenomenology ‘is a fraud’.
Lucky then for this unconventional pair and everybody else who knows them that they live in the same apartment block in a very swish area of Paris. But unlucky that due to their disparate circumstances – age and social status – it takes forever for them to meet.
By twelve Paloma is so frustrated by ‘the despicable vacuousness of bourgeois existence’ she is determined to end her ‘absurd’ life on her thirteenth birthday. And to burn down the apartment block while she’s at it.
By fifty four Renee is so frustrated by her insignificance she’s as prickly as a hedgehog; few escape her venom; she loathes even herself. After the most harmless of interchanges with one of her employers she vents her spleen by remarking: ‘You know you have reached the very bottom of the social food chain when you detect in a rich person’s voice that he is merely addressing himself.’
Fortunately for Paloma and Renee an intellectual Japanese gentleman, Monsieur Ozu, buys an apartment in their Parisian block. He immediately recognises them both as kindred spirits; he wastes no time getting to know them; he transforms their lives irrevocably....
When The Elegance of the Hedgehog was first published in France in 2006 the author, Muriel Barberry, didn’t expect it to sell. And certainly the story does not follow the ‘mackerel and herring’ definition of what makes a book a best seller: the central characters are waspish and the tone throughout is unashamedly highbrow. Yet the book has currently sold over 2.5 million copies and is translated into several languages. In fact, The Elegance of the Hedgehog has proved to be the exception which proves the rule in publishing and Barberry is quoted as saying she thinks this could be the reason for its success; she says her “cast of improbable characters and clashing perspectives has managed to interest an equally improbable range of readers from very different backgrounds.”
This year The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been shortlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin City Award, worth a whopping €100,000. This is the richest prize in literature and it’s quite an achievement to make the shortlist since all novels first published in English in 2008 are eligible; they are nominated by public libraries from all over the world; The Elegance of the Hedgehog was nominated by libraries in Hungary, Greece, France, USA, Brazil and Canada.
VERDICT: The Elegance of the Hedgehog is an intellectual reworking of a fairytale we all know and love – that of the frog which is kissed by a princess and magically turns into a prince. And they all live happily ever after.
In this story there are two frogs, Renee and Paloma, and the ‘princess’ is Monsieur Ozu. Is the ending happy? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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