Last fall, Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary to the Swedish Academy that picks the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature said “[t]he US is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature. That ignorance is restraining.” After a moment of nationalistic irritation and a fleeting thought that Phillip Roth shouldn’t expect the Nobel anytime soon, I started to list which current books I’ve read in translation. The list is short, less than one hand of fingers. And I’m not alone, only three percent of the books published each year in the US are translated, so very few people are reading them. If The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery is an example of what other countries are producing, I’m missing out on a lot.
I fell in love with The Elegance of the Hedgehog on the first page after I looked up “eructaton” (burp or fart): “There he stood, the most recent eructation of the ruling corporate elite–a class that reproduces itself solely by means of virtuous and proper hiccups.” The book is told through the voice of Renee, the concierge of a fashionable Paris apartment building (the quote is her description of a tenant), and Paloma, the 12 year old daughter of one of the tenants. Both hide their intelligence and lead largely solitary lives, but discover one another when a new tenant, Ozu, arrives.
Character development rather than plot moves the book forward. Before Ozu arrives, Renee and Paloma judge their world quite harshly. Both assume most people are dumb, Renee is bitter about the class structure that she works overtime to keep in place and Paloma finds life useless. Ozu, as the new person in the building and a cultural outsider, sees them clearly for who they are. Their relationship with him and each other gives them the security and space to stop hiding, both physically and figuratively.
Muriel Barbery’s only private west coast appearance will be at a National Endowment for the Arts benefit sponsored by Literary Affairs on Saturday, April 25th, the tickets are quite reasonable. Book Soup will be donating 10% of its sales at the event to the NEA. I’ll be there, let me know if you’re coming also.
Muriel Barbery weaves together threads of philosophy (I prefer reading about philosophy than actually reading it), the meaning of Art, literature (now I want to read Proust), music (a completely unique Mozart “Requiem” experience), film, Japanese culture, and descriptions of food that will make Read the rest of this entry »