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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

I wish I had not read this in translation. Silje, who recommended it to me, read it in the French original, and she was quite enthusiastic. I found the language wasn't always spot on in English. And I think I can put that down to the translator. Most of the times when I found it jarred, the phrasing seemed like something that would sound good in French. But because I haven't read it as it should be read, I find it very hard to pronounce judgement on it.

I enjoyed reading it, though. Tremendously. In part, perhaps because it reminded me of Helen DeWitt's The Last Samurai (which, seriously people, if you haven't read it yet, get to it) without actually being anything like it. It does not have the leaps and gaps and odd narrative technique which seems to put some people off the latter. The closest it gets to adventurousness in that respect is in its having two narrators.

The narrators are interesting, and to me I think the most interesting part of the book. They are both very intelligent, both hiding this fact from the world around them. One as a concierge for wealthy people, the other the (suicidal, for what she considers entirely rational reasons) daughter of one of these wealthy people. Since both provide first person narration, the game of following their voices rather than simply what they say had me quite entertained. People do not always have total understanding of themselves, and I think the awareness of that is something that enriches this book. That does not change the fact that both narrators are unusually intelligent, however. And that they have some interesting observations along the way.

I mentioned Helen DeWitt. Where her book is centred around Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai, this book floats around Yasujiro Ozu's films (but without dealing with their plots or treating them directly (much), as far as I can tell). This not only makes itself felt in that the Japanese directors are mentioned in the respective books. More importantly it dictates the feel of the book itself, including its progress. The two books feel distinctly Japan-inspired, but they draw on two very different aspects of Japan as perceived by the West. This may be due to the culture that received it (England and France, respectively).

A rudimentary knowledge of philosophy (Husserl gets a good talking-to -- or, rather, is confronted with pastry and loses), an openness to random epiphanies (regarding rugby, amongst other things) and a receptiveness to Cinderella may help you appreciate this book, but I don't know that it is a prerequisite. I also recommend reading it in calm surroundings with a pot of freshly brewed green jasmine tea. I didn't, but it feels like what should be done.

I liked it. I don't feel confident that all of you will, but I know some of you should read it. And would enjoy it tremendously.


Tor,  03.02.10 11:30

Sounds promising. But should I read it now, or learn French first?

Camilla,  03.02.10 14:04

That depends on how long it will take you to learn French, I suppose.