- Urbino, Italy - The Elegance of the Hedgehog has been a literary case here a couple of summers ago. There's one every year: in 2010 it was Auntie Mame, this summer it was some chick-lit novel. I usually don't even consider these books, but that time I just found myself gravitating towards it every single time I was at a bookstore. It may have been the cover - so simple yet capturing - or the plot - it would have taken me back to Paris! - but most definitely it was its title: what is this elegance attributed to an awkward animal such as a hedgehog? At the end, it was not that amusing, but I leave it to you to find out.
Nonetheless, after buying it, I just found myself unable to go over the first twenty pages - I hated it. This is basically the story of two people living in the same apartment building in Paris, a twelve-year-old girl, Paloma, daughter of a former Minister of the French Government, and Renée, the building's janitress. The book structure is in fact very slender and, theoretically, easy to read. A series of extremely brief chapters, organised in five parts, all in first-person narration. The girl and the woman's thoughts alternate, the first one recounting "deep thoughts" and "diaries of the world's movement," as an attempt to capture the world before killing herself - as she states at the very beginning - on her next birthday. Renée, instead, just tells her everyday story, a life where she plays the average janitress while she fancies literature, philosophy, and art. It's a story of hate - but also resignation - to the hypocrisy that governs people's existence, particularly when it comes to aristocracy.
What I just couldn't stand at the beginning was Renée's harsh criticism of the building's inhabitants, their prejudices towards her, when she's the one deliberately presenting herself like an ignorant, stupid, mostly mute presence. It's just too much. As the book goes on though, it definitely mitigates, mostly thanks to the arrival of Mr. Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese movie director who sees through Renée's acting and also manages to change Paloma's perspectives.
The novel is clearly a reflection of the author Muriel Barbery's cultural involvement, since she's been teaching philosophy for a long time, and this really makes the book a very good read, with a series of observations on art, beauty, and literature. It really has some beautiful insights on the matters. Still, it remains a novel, and I think it has some failures for being one.
The first thing I thought was: this is fiction. It is fiction in an evident way, which you shouldn't be thinking while reading fiction, in my opinion. You should be taken by the story, and leave plausibility out either because you don't need to - for example in fantasy fiction - or because you don't question it. Paloma is a very smart, educated twelve-year old to the point where it's impossible she could be twelve. There's a passage in the book where the girl herself says that "a kid who wants to play an adult still remains a kid," but here we have this kid who quotes Proust here, Freud there, and some Jakobson in between. It's just not plausible, and this disturbed the whole narration.
It feels like this book was just an attempt to conjunct philosophy and fiction, but it went poorly. Where the philosophy takes you higher, the fiction is poorly constructed. Still, it's worth reading just to take in some deeper thoughts on the little things. Paloma's "diaries on the world's movement" take little moments, fractions of gestures, and draw a painting. A beautiful one. Her thoughts on grammar - "a way of access to beauty" - were such a delight. Just, don't buy this one if you're looking for a story.
Rating: 3/5 Sour Grapes