The Elegance of the Hedgehog – Muriel Barbery

What’s with the French and philosophy? The Frenchman’s self-indulgent bent of mind that gave the world a fascination for truffles, chocolates, country cheeses, the café, wine and gourmet cooking, presents with yet another one: philosophy watered down to a fictional story involving two main characters – a concierge, Renee Michel, and a 12-year-old girl, Paloma Josse from a family that can be loosely described as the French political bourgeoisie.

The book’s author Muriel Barbery is a professor of philosophy, who claims to have learned more about life from literature than the subject she teaches. Personally, I find that impressive. I have great faith in literature.

The two protagonists are set in the same apartment building on the Parisian street named Rue de Grenelle, as was Barbery’s first novel, Gourmet Rhapsody. The class distinctions that the French society is witness to even today dictate that as a concierge, Renee Michel’s existence remains insignificant and unaccounted for.

She is surrounded by the rich, powerful and arrogant members of the French bourgeoisie, whom it is her job to look after. One of those members happens to be Paloma Josse, belonging to the privileged class, her father being a parliamentarian. The teenager is revealed to be intellectually precocious, angry about the ‘meaninglessness of life’, and armed with a mission to end her life on her thirteenth birthday. Before doing so, she embarks on compiling a diary of her ‘profound thoughts’, her own intellectual mission and contribution to the world.

Barbery uses these two characters to communicate her love for a lot many things oriental. Paloma nurses a fascination for Japanese food, Japanese way of life, movies, comics, language and of course, haikus. On the other hand, Madame Michel loves reading Kant, Marx, Leo Tolstoy, loves watching art-house movies by Yasujiro Ozu, and 17th century Dutch paintings.

The interesting bit that binds both the characters is that they are both closet intellectuals. The concierge is an autodidact and the teenager tries hard to look stupid at school and conform to mediocrity, although, it must be said that this prose tries to look unpretentious and condescending rather unsuccessfully. Besides, what’s with intellectuals and communist-socialist material? Well, that’s just the way it is, the book seems to be saying. Barbery’s purpose in trying to question stereotypes based on class distinctions ends up being self-defeating, since her answers themselves rest in stereotypes, of the exact opposite kind.

Apart from the essays on various topics such as art, movies, literature, philosophy, even food and flavours, which are all presented as musings of Madame Michel and Paloma, who later develop a strong affinity for each other, the introduction of Monsieur Kakuro Ozu, a Japanese businessman shunts the story forward.

The writing is interspersed with many a gem encompassing various subjects, so if you expect to dine out with so-called intellectuals one evening, this could be your go-to book to get noticed and drop names. The most fetching aspect though is Paloma’s search for meaning in this thing called life, which promises to strike a note in almost every reader, no matter where he/she comes from. So it is also when it all gives way to a love story in the making. The climax is especially abrupt, but hangs in suspension for a while, very Bollywood style. Yet, the characters are so well-formed by then, it is difficult to resist, in particular, a strong empathy with Monsieur Ozu.

No wonder then that the book was made into a movie called ‘The hedgehog’ after it notched up record sales in France, ruling the bestselling lists for at least 30 weeks straight. It is this that surprised market pundits: the French, who expect nothing less than gourmet quality in everything ranging from bagels to baguettes, wholly welcomed this watered-down approach to philosophy and shall we say, literature too. In the end, it left the rest of the world wondering: what’s with the French and philosophy… well, perhaps they just enjoy it.

My take: love it.

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