Thursday, September 13, 2012

Book Review: The Elegance of the Hedgehog

What is a hedgehog? A deceptively indolent little creature, fiercely solitary- and terribly elegant. Here is a parallelism of two life stories that somehow intersected in a social norm called, interaction. This is a story of similarities and contradictions -- of a building concierge seemingly content to her fate of being a wallflower and of a privileged teenager, dissatisfied and full of angst. Say, hello to 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog.'
One of the best I've read in my lifetime.
The book started out slow for me. I felt that the writer was way too condescending, self-absorbed and elitist. Yet, I had this nagging feeling that there must be a twist somewhere in the story. So, I was compelled to get through the obstacle. 

The french novelist, Muriel Barbery who wrote this book, skillfully employed wit, cynicism intertwined with a pragmatist point of view and a healthy dose of humor. 

It shares two voices, two point views of parallel lives. Of a concierge, (Renee) who observes that she has to live a double life, if only to ensure that she doesn't become an aberration to the society's expectations of what a concierge should be -- slow, unrefined, and uneducated. 

But here the protagonist is far from being a dim wit. She loves the written word. In fact, she is constantly surrounded by philosophers in her free time and ponder on their philosophies as to its significance in her time. She enjoys tea, the theater and visual arts.

Meanwhile, a 12 year old Paloma Josse is an upper class kid who lives a privileged life yet unhappy and thinks that life is not worth living. She views the people around her as shallow so more often than not, she criticizes everyone around her.

She sees Renee all the time and suspects that an intelligent woman hides behind that stoic facade.

As fate would have it, one of the celebrated tenants, a food critic, of 7 Rue de Grenelle died. It paved the way for the arrival of a new tenant, a cultured Japanese businessman named Kakuro Ozu. 

He shares Paloma's suspicion of Renee. He befriended both. In the short course of their friendship, Paloma through Renee, realizes that not everyone pursues vanity at the expense of their intelligence while Renee, for the first time in her life, feels that life is worth living. Short-lived as it was, she died a tragic death, she found meaning and affirmation.

As I leafed through the pages, I realized these 3 things:  

1. Stereotype is universal.  
Anywhere in the world, we live by a certain code. And it is largely affected by ones social standing. I believe it's the "caste system" of the modern society. We think that only the rich are gourmands, only the rich are cultured and sophisticated. 

When you're in the lower rung of the society, you're supposed to NOT appreciate opera music, ballet, museums. And that your interests are confined to soap operas and street gossip. 

But I strongly disagree. Case in point: I know of a chauffeur (driver) who's hobby is to read a book daily. And am so envious of him because he gets his dose of reading pleasure while earning his dough. 

Therefore, no one should be judged by the size of his wallet or educational attainment. One maybe schooled but not learned. Intellectual and cultural pursuits transcend generation and social status.

2.Meaningful conversations bridge a gap, any gap. 
The social divide between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, can be narrowed down if we start tearing down preconceived notions of what and where are our stations in life should be. When we start reaching out to those around us, even those we think below our station, we will be surprised at the depth that they hold. 

And that chatter can turn into healthy conversations. And that hollow pit you feel outside of an unpretentious talk is surprisingly a welcome breather. 

When one opens up to the vast possibilities then, the universe will conspire to make people of the same interests and desires cross their paths. 

3. Cocooning out of ones shell means 'coming out'. 
 One doesn't have to be an extrovert to connect with people. We just need to be more receptive to take the time to talk to the elevator man, the food vendor on the street, the taxi driver you rode with this morning, and that colleague you often see at your favorite hangout. These people may share your interests therefore allowing you to truly broaden your horizon. After all, life is lived in reality and not at the safety of ones head.
Go, get your copy at your favorite bookstore. You may also try Amazon, if you're too lazy to go out. See, the options are infinite. Read it now. No excuses.

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