When something is bothering me, I seek refuge. No need to travel far; a trip to the realm of literary memory will suffice. For where can one find more noble distraction, more entertaining company, more delightful enchantment than in literature?
If you like a fast-paced, action-packed plot, then this book is probably not for you. An international best-seller, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is a beautifully written, thought provoking and often funny novel. Alternating between Renee and Paloma, it explores themes of class consciousness, beauty and death, blindness and invisibility, and the meaning of life. In a New York Times review, Caryn James describes it as “eloquent little essays on time, beauty and the meaning of life.” The novel does start quite slowly, and as a philosophy professor, Barbery indulges in some heavy thinking at times, but it is well worth persisting, even if you have to skim over some of the philosophical bits.
Renee is a widowed, middle-aged concierge in one of those apartment blocks for the rich. Coming from an impoverished background, she had only a rudimentary education but possesses a keen intelligence and an appreciation for art, literature and film. Curiously, she keeps this part of herself well-hidden from the wealthy residents who see her just as a lowly concierge.
To rich people it must seem that the ordinary little people – perhaps because their lives are more impoverished, deprived of the oxygen of money and savoir-faire – experience human emotions with less intensity and greater indifference. Since we were concierges, it was a given that death for us, must be a matter of course, whereas for our privileged neighbours it carried all the weight of injustice and drama.
Paloma is a 12 year old girl who lives in one of the apartments and like Renee, is also highly intelligent and very perceptive about the adults and world around her. Concluding that life ultimately has no meaning, she has decided to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. In the meantime she commits to recording profound thoughts in her journal. Paloma hides too, much to the consternation of her family who spend countless hours searching for her.
I don’t see what the problem is. That I “hide” is not true, anyway; I go off to be alone in a place where no one can find me. I just want to be able to write…to think quietly in my head without being disturbed.
Paloma seeks solitude. She knows that “silence helps you to go inwards, that anyone who is interested in something more than just life outside actually needs silence.” While initially she comes across as being somewhat precocious, I quickly warmed to her astute observations and biting sarcasm. I think if I were trapped in an apartment with her family, I’d be wanting to hide too!
Part way through the book, the two main characters are joined by a new resident, Kakuro Ozu. Kakuro is kind, jovial and wise, and far more observant than most of the other residents. He immediately recognises the truth about Renee and Paloma. Crossing all class lines, he initiates friendship with both Renee and Paloma, and it is at his prompting that Paloma looks properly at Renee and sees the real beauty that lies within.
Madame 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.
Here is where we finally find the relevance of the title. Hedgehogs may well be elegant creatures on the inside, but James’ review identifies a connection between Barbery’s novel and an essay by philosopher Isaiah Berlin called “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” Berlin describes how writers and thinkers are divided into two camps, hedgehogs and foxes. While hedgehogs view the world through a single viewpoint, foxes see the world in a way that is far more complex and multi-faceted. Nominating a variety of thinkers as either hedgehogs or foxes, he specifically singles out Tolstoy as having the “nature of a fox but the conviction of a hedgehog.” Tolstoy is Renee’s favourite writer. She even names her cat Leo. James notes that although Barbery never makes an explicit reference to Berlin or his essay, Renee is very much like Tolstoy. She is intellectually eclectic but attempts to combine everything into a single view of life – like Berlin’s hedgehog. Interestingly, Berlin apparently only intended his essay as a bit of intellectual fun and not to be taken too seriously.
Kakuro is the catalyst that brings Renee and Paloma together as friends. Despite their age and class difference, Renee and Paloma are very alike and the developing friendship between all three of them is like the slow opening of a rose bud. For the first time in her life, Renee is opening herself up to friendship based on mutual respect and admiration. It was a “feeling of absolute security that comes when one is sure that understanding is mutual. Entrusting one’s life is not the same as opening up one’s soul.“
It has been a long time since I have been deeply and emotionally impacted by a book. Barbery is one of the few writers that I have come across who depicts grief and gets it right. On the cusp of something so beautiful, tragedy strikes and it took my breath away.
…it hurt, it really hurt. Like a fist in my stomach: I couldn’t breathe, my heart aching fit to burst, my tummy crushed. An unbearable physical pain…it hurt so much I wanted to scream.
When someone that you love dies…you really feel what it (never) means and it really really hurts. It’s like fireworks suddenly burning out in the sky and everything going black. I feel alone and sick, my heart aches and every movement seems to require a colossal effort.
This has been one of my best reads for a very long time – beautiful and deep, pierced with exquisite joy and agony. There were so many wonderful quotes about life and people and our failure to really see the world around us. Some will make you laugh or shake your head in wry acknowledgement, such as…
Those who can, do Those who can’t, teach Those who can’t teach, teach the teachers Those who can’t teach the teachers, go into politics.
It explains a lot. And then there are others that will make you think.
We never look beyond our assumptions, and what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves. We don’t recognise each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors…
About Hedgehogs, Porcupines and Echidnas
The book snap actually features an echidna. People often confuse hedgehogs, porcupines and echidnas but they are not the same, as you can see from the images above. In fact, despite their spiny quills, they are not even related. Hedgehogs can be found across Europe, Asia and Africa, and even in New Zealand, although these were an introduced species. Porcupines are actually rodents and are also found across Europe, Asia and Africa but these are a different species to those that are found in North and South America. The Australian echidna is a monotreme, that is, an egg-laying mammal. It feeds on ants and termites and has very strong claws which are excellent for digging.
Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, (tr. Alison Anderson), Gallic Books, 2008.
Caryn James, ‘Thinking on the Sly’, New York Times, Sep 5, 2008.