The French author Muriel Barbery’s highly acclaimed novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog (translated into English in 2008 by Alison Anderson) is a book for and about self-directed readers and smart people, particularly frustrated ones. In it, a hôtel building’s concierge, Renée Michel, unprepossessing physically and getting on in years, hides behind the concierge stereotype. After all, this is all that is expected or wanted of her by the vast majority of the building’s inhabitants. But behind her mask, she is a self-taught intellectual (an autodidact, to use the correct term) who reads and/or comprehends everything from philosophy to fine music and art, with a generous smattering of topics her employers are themselves too ignorant and worldly truly to understand. The book goes a long way to prove that wealth is not necessarily a sign of intelligence, nor is intelligence an index to personal income and status.
The second heroine of the book is a pre-teen named Paloma Joss, who is also very gifted, and who understands too much to feel comfortable with her family’s privileged lifestyle. Paloma lives in the hôtel, but isn’t planning to continue that way for long: she contemplates setting things on fire, but then confusedly though valiantly decides to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. She keeps a journal of “Profound Thoughts,” and some of them truly are profound.
The status quo and equilibrium of the building’s social system are disturbed, however, when a wealthy but unusually modest Japanese gentleman moves in. For he sees through Renée’s cover almost at once, perceiving her as a kindred soul (he is not only wealthy but is also intelligent, educated, and genuinely well-bred). He is clearly determined not to allow the concierge to continue to hide out behind her mask of dullness. She and he and Paloma become acquaintances and then friends, all three of them joining to defy the class and age barriers that would keep them apart.
I won’t reveal the startling and moving ending except to quote Renée: “The paths of God are all too explicit for those who pride themselves on their ability to decipher them….” Paloma’s voice ends the novel, which is only fitting, especially since she is thought of by the concierge as “the daughter I never had,” and is at the ending a voice of hope. She is thus a member of one of those human families we all make for ourselves, sometimes consisting partly of actual relations, sometimes not. Amongst them, Renée, Paloma, and Ozu (their new friend) have sketched out the parameters that bound what people, rich or poor, can aspire to achieve–the territory is boundless.
This book, lest you think it a solemn, preachy text, is constructed of many comic moments, both when sketching out characters through their dialogue, and in the actual events that happen to people when they least expect it. One of my favorite moments occurs when Renée is shyly visiting Ozu, and makes a trip to his bathroom, only to find that his toilet plays music at top volume when flushed.
Barbery has in this book successfully mingled the nobler aspects of the human race with the humorous and the painful to show that everywhere a human being is, so there is a potential fellow just hiding and waiting to be found by an appreciator. May we all keep this in mind as we meet other people, and may we hope to find in them something we can relate to, however sad, funny, ironic, or small.