Charm and cleverness

<strong>The Elegance of the Hedgehog</strong>

Muriel Barbery, translated by Alison Anderson

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The concierge Renée - a curmudgeonly but correct "Mme Michel" to the chic Parisian in habitants of 7 rue de Grenelle - makes her first appearance in Muriel Barbery's debut novel, Une Gourmandise (2000). In a brief, bitter monologue, she skewers the blind self-absorption of the rich: how they barely acknowledge her existence but still expect her to water their plants and wipe up the mud they track in, to sympathise with their sorrows and grieve when they die. Without her servitude, she wonders, would they be as powerful?

In The Elegance of the Hedgehog, at the centre of her own story, Renée loses her sourness but none of her acuity about the class system. The picturesque dowdiness, blaring television set and string shopping bags filled with cheap cuts of meat are all part of an elaborate ruse to keep the status quo intact. Because Renée is, to the few who care to look closely enough, a "clandestine erudite princess": a fervent autodidact who favours Tolstoy, Kant and the films of Yasujiro Ozu. Yet she is not as alone as she imagines. Five floors up, 12-year-old Paloma spends her days hiding her intellectual precocity from Papa, a spineless politician, Maman, a Prozac-popping bourgeoise with socialist aspirations, and her sister Colombe, a stroppy faux-bohemian.

Renée and Paloma clearly possess twin souls. They ponder the same questions (What is the purpose of art? Isn't intelligence simply a means to an end?), see grammar as "a way to attain beauty" (Renée collapses in agony over a misplaced comma) and foster parallel infatuations with Japan (the food, the philosophy and, for Paloma, the manga). But whereas the elder of the two trundles doggedly from year to year, the younger plans to end it all on her 13th birthday. Not for her the "goldfish bowl" of adulthood.

In the meantime, life ekes along on the pleasure afforded by everyday occurrences. Paloma delights in the "concentrated strength" of an All Blacks rugby player, the "sublime wholeness" of a school choir and the primal scramble of a posh lingerie sale. Renée sips hot jasmine tea and nibbles delicate home-made pastries in the ennobling company of her dear friend Manuela, an aristocratic Portuguese cleaner who is "never sullied by vulgarity, although she may be surrounded by it". So, imagine the upheaval when an authentic Japanese man moves in. Not only does kind, jolly Kakuro thoroughly remodel the flat - complete with sliding doors, bonsai and bamboo shades - but he also begins, ever so gently, to draw out the two prize introverts of the rue de Grenelle.

At once absurd and lyrical, cheery and bleak, contemplative and tender, The Elegance of the Hedgehog enjoyed a storybook word-of-mouth success in France. An alumna of the École Normale Supérieure, Barbery taught philosophy until her blossoming literary career offered her the opportunity to relocate to Japan. She underpins her writing with an infectious, if occasionally unsubtle, didactic ardour. All three protagonists offer specific antidotes to the ills of modern life: Renée contradicts class prejudice and intellectual pretension (education divorced of practical merit is, she decides, "a primed weapon in the service of a trivial and material goal"). Paloma presents the alternative to a generation of rioting banlieue-dwellers and cosseted little rich kids. And Kakuro embodies a sort of rose-tinted eastern answer to western wretchedness. He, more than anything else, demonstrates how Barbery's charm and cleverness allow for certain cultural and narrative simplifications that might otherwise prove to be insufferable.

Sadly, but not fatally, Alison Anderson's English translation mislays much of the poetry of the original. Literal rather than instinctive, it is uneven, inelegant and at times painfully infantilising: "saucisson" and "hôtel particulier" stay, but "coquilles Saint-Jacques" turn into "scallops in champagne sauce". When, as a favour for Renée, Manuela offers to bake an absolute abundance of pastries, her lovely answer to her friend's protests ("Me donner du mal? répond-elle. Mais Renée, c'est vous qui me donnez du bien depuis toutes ces années!") becomes a sloppy "So much bother? But Renée, you are the one who has been going to a lot of bother for my sake all these years."

Perhaps one cannot re-create the play on donner du mal and faire du bien, but the sense of the original phrase should have been made clear: "Put myself out? But Renée, it is you who have done me good all these years!" And there lies the key: Barbery's faith in human goodness. Amid ruminations about east and west, poverty and wealth, Racine and Bescherelle, phenomenology and Freudianism, it is the revelatory joy the characters afford each other - with recognition, with friendship, with love - that quietly rises to the top.

Like a Chinese game of Go, says Paloma, "in the end, life and death are only the consequences of how well or how poorly you have made your construction."

This article first appeared in the 01 September 2008 issue of the New Statesman, The truth about GM food