Just to get it right out of the way, I couldn’t finish Muriel Barbery‘s The Elegance of the Hedgehog. I read the first 130 pages or so and then I closed it, never to open it again.
It’s the story of a concierge in a house of rich people in Paris, who comes from the countryside and devotes her life to reading and hiding the fact that she privately educated herself better than most people. In the same house lives a 12 year old girl, who is highly gifted, but fed up with the world, so she decides to kill herself on her 13th birthday and setting fire to the flat of her parents.
It’s told alternately through the concierge’s view and the diary entries of the girl.
The best thing about this book – the beautiful cover.
Now, what was wrong with it?
I don’t know whether I should blame the translator (German) or Ms. Barbery herself, but there’s absolutely no difference in style between the two narrators. You would think that a fifty-something concierge from a working class (even if very well educated) and a 12 year old rich girl (even if very intelligent) talk differently. But not in this book – if it weren’t for the difference in fonts, you’d never know that there were two people talking. Plus, a 12 year old, even if she’s got Stephen Hawking‘s IQ still talks like a 12 year old and not like a middle aged woman.
And, you know, I’m rather easy, usually. Make me laugh, drop some (pop culture) references and I’m eternally yours. But if you mess up the easiest references, don’t bother. Calling Darth Vader “Dark Vador” hurts even me, although I’m no particular Star Wars fan. [It was maybe meant to be funny, but seeing as it came from a rather pedantic woman, whose only pride it is to know just about everything, I don’t think so.]
Then, don’t you dare talk to me about good culture and bad culture. I don’t think that Shakespeare is worth more than Die Hard. I may like it more, but me (or anybody else) liking something is not the measure for good or bad. In fact, I’d go as far as saying that there’s no such thing as good or bad. Snob.
But the kiss of death was that I just couldn’t stand either protagonist. Everytime the concierge talked about how she needs to hide her true (educated) self from the inhabitants of the house, I wanted to slap her left and right and then scream, “WHY? WHY??? You have nothing but contempt for these people, why would you care what they think? And who says that a concierge has to be stupid? Show me the person who would fire a concierge because she reads!”
And the girl just wasn’t a girl, she was a bitter old woman. The emo-ness of it all just killed me.
Oh, and a minor sidenote to the translator: If the girls wants to write down her thoughts as haikus and mentions so in the text, then pleasepleaseplease translate them as haikus. Maybe you have to take a little more liberties with the phrasing, but in this case, structure definitely comes before phrase.
It has raving reviews telling us that it’s funny (I didn’t even smile once), well-written (if you can’t do different characters, you shouldn’t write them) and “radical in its stand against French classism and hypocrisy” (it was a long time ago that speaking against the upperclass snobs was radical), but I can’t shake the feeling that the people saying that read a different book. I found it unbearable.