This is quite a woe-is-me thing to say, but I miss France. I lived there for a year five years ago and I've never fully recovered. Oh sure, dogs poop on the sidewalks, but that's a minor inconvenience when you consider that good wine costs €3 and delicious breads and pastries are available from nearly every street corner in a city, and that it's France. That being said, there are things about France that can be quite problematic. For all the government aid (as a student, I got half my rent back every month), there is still a quite an entrenched class system, and although it's shrinking a bit, it is certainly felt among the older generations. That divide is one of the most intriguing aspects of Muriel Barbery's novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and although I didn't quite buy how she dealt with it at the end, I very much enjoyed getting to spend some time in Paris.
The novel is comprised ostensibly of two diaries. The first is written by Renée Michel, the widowed concierge at 7, rue de Grenelle, and an autodidact in hiding. The second is kept by Paloma Josse, the 12-year-old daughter of a wealthy family living upstairs. Paloma has decided to kill herself on her 13th birthday because she doesn't want to grow up to be an adult caught in the fishbowl of life; her diary entries consist of self-described profound thoughts, based on various events she witnesses or is involved in, as well as an attempt to document the "masterpieces of matter" through their movement. I realize this makes Paloma sound kind of intolerable, but really, think back to when you were 12 – didn't you think you had it all figured out, could see everything clearly? Then, of course, puberty kicks in and all that certainty disappears, but for a brief time things are clear, and Barbery captures that really beautifully.
The main thread of the story, though, is Renée's, with Paloma's thoughts nicely interspersed. Renée, as I mentioned, is in hiding. She comes from a very poor background, received very little schooling, and yet is a brilliant appreciator of the arts. She reads complicated philosophy, enjoys Japanese film and Russian literature and cooks herself lovely meals, but works and lives as a concierge. She is, in fact, terrified anyone in the the building might find her out and she puts on a great show of being a dumb peasant. Every once in a while, though, she slips up. She tells a boy in the building that the Marx he's reading for school will be less impressive once he's read The German Ideology; she accidentally quotes War and Peace to another tenant. It's as if, after years of successfully playing a role, she can't quite hold it all in anymore.
Paloma is also hiding, in her own way. She's very smart – she describes herself as an intellectual – and deliberately tries to not do too well at school for fear of standing out. She still comes first in her class. At home, Paloma hates her life. She sees her parents as frivolous and unaware, and she detests her older sister who she sees as a fake: a rich girl who wears torn and old clothing and speaks in improper French, a student of philosophy who doesn't fully interrogate her surroundings. Paloma is sick of all of them, so she hides herself – physically and intellectually – and writes in her journals.
Then, one of the apartment owners at 7, rue de Grenelle dies and, rather than keeping the apartment in the family, which is typical, it is sold. Everyone in the building is hugely curious about who the new owner will be, and when a Japanese man not only buys the apartment but renovates it completely, the whole building is abuzz. For Renée, who has an affinity for a Japanese cinema, and Paloma, who reads manga, their new neighbour is like a revelation. When Kakuro develops an affinity for each of them in turn, and is able to draw them out of their private worlds, their lives change very rapidly.
If I were still studying English at university, I would say that Kakuro is a metaphor for immigration, with Renée standing in for France, and that Barbery is making a veiled point about how different cultures enhance and open up our own ("our own," in this case, being France). Certainly this is a plausible reading, and Barbery is an academic, so it wouldn't be out of the question, but I think it's a little obvious (it is also spoiled by the ending).
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, it seems to me, is more about learning how to accept yourself for who you have become and staying open to possibility, rather than being constrained by past experiences. This all comes out very quickly at the end, though, and my favourite parts of the novel are closer to the beginning, when Paloma is complaining about her family and Renée's feelings about the transcendent power of art are juxtaposed against the seemingly petty concerns of the residents. It's wonderfully French, the balance of high art and quotidian concerns, that you can't help but get carried away.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog
by Muriel Barbery (translated from French by Alison Anderson)
First published in 2006 (cover image from Europa Editions)