Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review

The elegance of the hedgehog : Muriel Barbery

You know how some books are a ‘read’ and some are a ‘study’. Well, this book for me was a study. Next to Thoreau's Walden, this was a book that while reading, I felt like taking ardent notes and highlighting almost every single line. There is so much depth of thought and philosophy but unfortunately for me, many of them went over my head. This books requires much more intelligence than I possess to understand its nuances. When the author expounds on art, music, books and movies, though some of the works, philosophers and artists are familiar and some vaguely so and some that I actually read, I can’t say I remember much about them to grasp her analysis.

The protagonist, Madam Michel, is a concierge, in her 50s and is brutally honest about herself and those around her. She values great minds and is confidently aware of her acute intelligence and is in many ways a victim of her impoverished circumstances and society’s prejudices. She tries her best to hide her brilliant mind and tries to conform to people’s opinion of how a lowly concierge should appear, think, talk and behave. The author doesn’t give away, almost till the end, the reason for Madam Michel’s fear and insecurity of moving upwards to society’s upper strata which her keen intelligence and wit would have easily allowed.

The other equally important narrative voice is of Paloma, an intelligent, rich, 12 year old brat who is misunderstood by every one around her, including her family. She has an inquisitive mind and is in a constant quest for something profound and meaningful in everyday life that would help her find answers to existential questions. The third character is the new Japanese tenant Kakuro Ozu, a kind, wise and wealthy man. How this trio form an unlikely friendship is the crux of the story.

Initially, I found both Madam Michel and Paloma to be arrogant and prejudiced with an unforgiving attitude towards the rich and their mores, kind of like inverse snobbery. But as the book progresses, you can understand their reasoning. Their enlightened mindset brings light to the fact that richness isn’t about material possessions but is rather about one’s ability to take the time to appreciate and savor the simple things in life and to realize the beauty in them. They reiterate the importance of creativity and originality of human thought. And the value of being true to oneself without conforming to expectations - self-imposed or otherwise.

The author, through Madam Michel’s and Paloma’s musings, touches everything that adds beauty to life - language, art, music, literature, movies, aesthetics, culture and philosophy. There were many statements that moved me so much that I had the urge to commit them to memory forever and recite them every day. Especially this one... “..if you dread tomorrow, it's because you don't know how to build the present, you tell yourself you can deal with it tomorrow, and it's a lost cause anyway because tomorrow always ends up becoming today, don't you see?”  .   

In spite of the book tackling some serious and intense topics, there are many instances of humour throughout the book, like Madam Michel’s horrified reaction to the improper use of a comma in a note left to her by a rich and supposedly educated lady ; Madam Michel’s consternation when using Kakuros’ elegant and luxurious bathroom; Madam Michel’s efforts to dress up for dinner; Paloma’s opinion of her sister’s manic cleanliness; Paloma’s narration of her mom’s shopping adventure... and many more..

Though I finished reading this book, it is not something that I can cross off from my list of ‘must-reads’ as I was only able to comprehend some of the author’s expostulations on living. It is definitely a re-read or should I say a ‘re-study’ so I understand it better the next time around and more importantly, for the beautiful reminders of the moments of beauty one encounters in life if one is present.

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