Mme. Barbery’s Divine Gallic Charm

May 29, 2009 | No Comments

Elsewhere the world may be blustering or sleeping, wars are fought, people live and die, some nations disintegrate while others are born. And in all this sound and fury, amidst eruptions and undertows, while the world goes its merry way, bursts into flames, tears itself apart and is reborn: human life continues to throb. So let us drink a cup of tea.”

Wise words from Parisian concierge Renee, who makes pedagogical efforts to appear semi-retarded so as not to upset those bourgeois notions about intelligence and class still tenderly held by the majority of her oblivious, self-absorbed employers. 
French author Muriel Barbery’s delicious novel The Elegance of the Hedgehog (now available in paperback) merits its runaway success, and much credit must go to Alison Anderson’s rich and skillful translation. The quiet story of how the intellectual Renee is coached out of her shell by the arrival of a Japanese tenant, is delicately mirrored by the precocious musings of twelve-year-old Paloma, the daughter of another tenant, as she calmly plans her own suicide.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog‘s combination of bourgeois mise-en-scene, cinematic references, lush reveling in la table, philosophical and metaphysical debate and Japanese esthetics makes this book so irresistibly, well, French. Barbery’s light touch triggered a surprisingly strong emotional response from this reader.  A particular highlight is Renee’s flinching in the face of an employer’s grammatical confusion between the verbs “to bring” and “to take.” A confusion, I fear, which is so rampantly out of control in American English that it may need to be given up as a lost cause.
(Note to fans: Barbery’s first book, Gourmet Rhapsody (Une Gourmandise) will be released in the USA this coming August.)