That, in a nutshell, is what Muriel Barbery`s wonderful book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog is all about. Renee is an over weight, grumpy concierge for a Parisian apartment block, where she is at the beck and call of all manner of ingrates, rich in monetary wealth, but poor in human spirit. Yet Renee is not what she seems to the undiscerning eye, because behind her ill-tempered, prickly facade there lies a hyper intelligent lady of sophisticated tastes and interests far above the narrow intellectual confines of her wealthy clients. They see her as a serf and a skivvy, to be tolerated. They feel safe behind the barrier of stereotypes which society sets up like a high factor sunblock cream; the concept of the lower orders actually having intellectual understanding of the things the rich see as their province, would undermine the whole social fabric, then where would everything be?
“I find this a fascinating phenomenon: the ability we have to manipulate ourselves so that the foundation of our beliefs is never shaken.”Here, we have a seemingly unlettered concierge, who skulks about among the intelligentsia like a spy, who reads the philosophical heavyweights, adores the films of Ozu, is passionately devoted to Tolstoy and converses to her cat Leo on matters which would make the most switched on academic feel slightly nervous at being a trifle out of their depth. Inside this short, plump woman, lurks the razor sharp mind of a female Leonardo, a polyglot of human knowledge, insatiable in it`s appetite for knowledge and intellectual advancement. The book`s two narrators are Renee, a widowed concierge, who calls herself a “working class nobody” who feels it safer if her knowledge is never discovered – ” ……….a permanent traitor to my archetype.” After all, everyone in life feels safer when the rules are followed, and her apartment block is the world in microcosm.
The other narrator is Paloma, a precocious 12 year old girl, who feels that existence is pointless, and plans to end her life when she reaches 13. neither of them realize they share the same world view. Both disdain the class consciousness of the building`s occupants and their useless preoccupation with appearances and social status. Like Renee, Paloma is incredibly intellectually gifted but only allows a tiny tip to show above the surface of her studied, and intentional apathy. To show the slightest glimmer of intelligence and interest, would solicit a response from the very people she despises as intellectual ingrates. She does not want such creatures to pat her on the head, she would rather they consider her unworthy of interest and ignore her. “Madam 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 terribly elegant.”
The sharp eyed Paloma guesses that Renee Michel has “…the same simple refinement as the hedgehog,” an accumulator of vast amounts of knowledge, with which she gathers about her, like a treasure encircled and protected by the severe fortress of her outwardly grumpy personality. And then there is the attentive Asian gentleman who moves into the building, and who, Renee discovers, is none other than a certain Mr Ozu……..Could it possibly be? He immediately recognizes her for what she is…..The real person beneath the stern, armoured indolent exterior: a warm, close friendship of like minds is struck as he slowly begins to draw her from her protective shell, to bask in the sunshine of friendship and intellectual kinship. “When something is bothering me, I seek refuge. No need to travel far; a trip to the realm of literary memory will suffice. For where can one find more noble distraction , more entertaining company, more delightful enchantment than in literature?”
Quite near the end, Renee and Paloma become friends too, both recognizing themselves in each other, as intellectual foxes in a coop of dullard hens. The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one of the books I would take to a desert island with me: it is a masterful work of philosophy masquerading as a novel. It`s an intellectually, and emotionally eclectic jamboree of a book which never fails to delight me whenever I delve into it`s world. Madame Renee Michel is a goddess of literature.