‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery
“With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of art, I don’t see much else that can nurture human life.”
Some people and certain experiences come right out of the blue , gives a kick on your backside and shock you out of your lazy complacence. You are left bewildered for a while before the light slowly starts shining down through the clouds. Certain books are like that. You start reading like you usually do, turning page after page, stopping to catch a phrase or a sentence now and then, skipping a page here and there, expecting to like, love, hate and ignore certain characters and to bring that satisfied smile on your face at the end. You think it would be another affair coming to an end. And then it transforms into a love that would last a lifetime.
To be honest, I was expecting the experience to be a little different from the usual, two of my book group friends just could not stop praising it. A precocious young girl who had decided to burn her apartment and kill herself on her 12th birthday because she was disillusioned with life , a 50 something extra intelligent concierge of a high end apartment complex somewhere in the frequented-by-ultra rich lanes of Paris, and their profound thoughts – sounds quite pretentious, doesn’t it? That’s exactly what my thoughts were as I started with it.
The invasion of senses was slow, but sure and steady. I had to stop after almost each paragraph, sometimes to smile, sometimes to think and sometimes just to have a stupid grin of pure bliss on my face. A book, or should I say an author was doing this to me after a long time. ‘The Garden of Evening Mists‘ made me dream and ‘Under the Tuscan Sun’ was like seeing my dream come to life. ‘The Book Thief‘ had enchanted me and ‘The Forty Rules of Love‘ was a mystic experience. But this was something else.
At 12, Paloma already knows the futile nature of life. Or so she thinks. And when we consider how most of our lives turn out, you cannot actually blame her,
“People aim for the stars, and they end up like goldfish in a bowl. I wonder if it wouldn’t be simpler just to teach children right from the start that life is absurd.”
Renee`, commonly known as the bland Madame Michel, the concierge of the apartment where Paloma lives, is a connoisseur of art and literature. Unfortunately, she believes that people are expected to behave in a certain manner according to which section of the society one belongs to. So, she takes great pains to act like a typical concierge, hiding her true self.
Both have a penchant for things Zen and Japanese. And to their secret world comes in an old and charming Japanese guy, to shake them out. As the three go through their meetings and discoveries about each other, I was wondering what is it about the Japanese that brings out the sublime in us? Is it because they are constricted for space that they make it an art of silence and emptiness? No, to call it an emptiness would be sacrilege, it’s more like creating space and calm from emptiness.
Even an attempt at doing a review would be pointless. For, this is not about stories and plots, maybe a little bit about characters. The first and only word that I can think of is ‘profound,’ if someone asked me to describe it in one word. More than what the characters say or do, the book is about what the characters think. And their thoughts are what enamors and encompasses you and your whole mind. Among a lot other things, it made me think about a never ending discussion, questions to which there is no right answers, “What the characters speak for, or in this case, think for, is it how the author would be in real life? Do we or should we judge books by their authors and vice versa ?”
The book talks about life , art , beauty and such sublime matters. Weaving its way through all these is the thread that connects one human being to another, irrespective of where they come from , what they do and where they are going. You might be successful in hiding your true self to most, but kindred souls will always find you out, as Paloma says about Renee`,
“Madame Michel has the elegance of the hedgehog: on the outside she is 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 terrible elegant. ”
Paloma’s ruminations tells us how children are not much different from us, the so called adults. You are left wondering how we lose the sense of wonder and the ability to see things as they are , as we grow up or pretend to do so. Most of us knew how to find joy in the simplest of things as kids, each experience was as exciting as the earlier one and we welcomed it with open hands. As adults, many of us find solace in music and art. Have we ever thought the feeling can exactly be the same for a child as well?
“Here are all these people, full of heartache or hatred or desire, and we all have our troubles and the school year is filled with vulgarity and triviality and consequence, and there are all these teachers and kids of every shape and size, and there’s this life we’re struggling through full of shouting and tears and fights and break-ups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck — it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing. Everyday life vanishes into song, you are suddenly overcome with a feeling of brotherhood, of deep solidarity, even love, and it diffuses the ugliness of everyday life into a spirit of perfect communion.”
I have always found answers to many a question on life in books that I love. This one made me wonder whether they are true answers or merely what my mind and soul seek for. It reinstated my belief that the most profound truths comes from the mouths of children. It also made me realize that the questions that pop up in my mind from time to time are merely an attempt at re asserting what I already knew, that this is exactly what life is about,
“Thinking back on it, this evening, with my heart and my stomach all like jelly, I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.
Yes, that’s it, an always within never.”
To put it short and blunt, the Hedgehog made me think, after a long time…for a long time…
Verdict – You will either love it to death or purely hate it. If well developed plots, action and the art of beautiful story telling is what turns you on, this may not be for you. But, if you are someone like me who goes into a trance after reading something profound and which touches the core your soul, this is a must read.