The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

The elegance of the hedgehog is a rather beautiful, if flawed, novel which seems to have been dragged down to earth by a rushed and often over-literal translation.

The book is narrated by Renée, a lowly concierge with secret highbrow tastes, and features interludes from the diary of Paloma, a precocious twelve year-old who is so appalled by the grown-up world around her that she plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. For most of the first half of the book these two characters are so relentlessly miserable and misanthropic that, had I not been reviewing the book for Amazon, I would have given up long before the halfway point. However, as becomes increasingly clear, the author is setting the scene for a moral lesson, and by the end both characters have learned that you shouldn’t judge by appearances, and that it is better to help others than to sit at home moaning about them. From halfway, the book really picks up pace, and by the end… well, it’s all rather special.

However, the author doesn’t seem to entirely believe her own teachings. One of the key themes of the book is not to judge people by their appearance or social status, and yet even the most sympathetic characters in the book seem to be completely taken aback at the mere idea of “a concierge who reads”. Also, there is no redemption for most of the upper-class, snobbish and utterly unlikeable residents of Renée’s apartment block: in fact, read differently the lesson of this novel could just as well be “all rich French people are bad, and all foreigners are good (and exotically mysterious to boot!)”

Several existing reviews of the book use the word “philosophical”, perhaps inspired by Paloma’s “profound thoughts”. Most of these are written in a philosophical way, but aren’t that different from the type of musings-on-the-world which you would expect to find in the diary of many intelligent teenagers. Similarly, Proust is mentioned in a couple of reviews, but the only link I could find is a couple of references to madelines, and the use of other items (jasmine tea, camellias, …) as a similar trigger for memories.

It’s not always easy to get to the real meaning of the novel, however, as the translation is often stodgy and unsatisfactory. This is most noticable in the translation of colloquialisms, dialect and grammatical oddities: in particular, a key element of the story is that both main characters hate bad grammar; but the errors they choose to vent their fury upon are, in the English translation, so minor as to be imperceptible to all but the most strictly schooled English speakers. The subsequent outrage makes both characters seem like frothing grammar-nazis of the worst order, and for me at least this made me unable to take the characters seriously.

Throughought the book (although mainly in the first half) I stumbled across awkward sentences which, I guessed, had been too literally translated from the French. This was a huge distraction and greatly spoiled my enjoyment of the book. But if you can fight your way through these then there is a decent reward by the end.

Buy this book at Amazon UK