The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Muriel Barbery, Alison Anderson (trans.)

So this is a really good translation.  It sounds French, if that makes any sense – the words from the people sound like things that would come out of the mouths of my French friends (if they felt like talking about Tolstoy, which so far they have not shown any particular inclination to do) – but without the awkwardness that bugs me in so many translations of foreign novels.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about a concierge who has spent her life pretending to be stupid so that nobody will notice her.  She is fairly isolated, as you can imagine, but does not want to interact with the people in her building on honest terms.  She’s afraid of being found out.  Meanwhile, a little rich girl in the building has decided to kill herself when she turns thirteen, in order to avoid the idiocy she sees in the entire adult world.  Most of the book consists of their diary entries, the concierge and the twelve-year-old girl.

I have to say that there were times in this book when I felt like they were a bit mean, the concierge and the girl, about everyone else around them.  Not because people aren’t dismissive and arrogant and self-deceptive – lots of people are – but because they seemed to cut them so little slack.  Or rather, what bothered me was the feeling of dismissing most of the human race.  I am not immune to the allure of books in which the protagonist(s) are better than everyone around them, but I felt through probably the first third of this book that it was taking it too far.  Oh, and I thought Paloma, the little girl, was a smidge unbelievable.

However, it was a good book.  I quickly became interested in the concierge and the little girl, and I was excited for them to meet.  I liked it that their meeting was intriguing without being terribly dramatic, understated without being an anticlimax.  They coexisted peacefully once they had met, but not in the sense that they were teaching each other how to live.  They just liked being together.  Like people do.  They spend only a very small fraction of the book together, but the book is all about those quiet moments of connection and beauty and happiness.

So you should read The Elegance of the Hedgehog.  If you find it a little pretentious at first, keep on trying.  And then when you are finished, you should read it again.  I have a feeling it will be even more enjoyable upon successive rereading.  And someday I should learn really good French, and read it in the original.

Boston Bibliophile
Shelf Life
Vulpes Libris
books i done read
an adventure in reading
A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook

Let me know if I missed yours!

Little Boy Lost, by Marghanita Laski

Recommended by: imani, more or less. Or rather, she mentioned The Victorian Chaise-Longue, also by Marghanita Laski, and I picked up Little Boy Lost at the library at the same time. So “recommended” is actually a pretty big stretch on this, but whatever.

For a while I was convinced that this book had to be in translation. It just had these weird bits that you get when you are reading books in translation, and the author’s name is unusual and might quite easily have been foreign; and anyway I was all set to write this review and say I hate reading books in translation.

Which is absolutely true, and probably the reason I have never got on well with Gabriel Garcia Marquez or any Russian writers ever (not counting Nabokov who wrote in English and I claim him as an American writer).

Instead I guess I have to say that Little Boy Lost just baffled me. It’s about an Englishman called Hilary whose Polish wife Lisa died at the hands of the Nazis, and whose son, who was with Lisa until shortly before the Gestapo got her, is missing. And might be dead. Or might not. During the war, Lisa’s friend’s husband Pierre is in France trying to find the kid, and at the end of the war Hilary comes to France to check how it’s going and go meet the only kid it could possibly be. And it’s very weird because one moment he’s all in total agony about everything, and the next moment he’s like, Whatevs, glad you’re handling that tracking-the-kid-down thing, and just let me know what you find out. Or one moment he’s bitter and miserable and thinks that finding his son is his only chance for happiness, and then two pages later it’ll be this:

He added with a kind of delight, “It’s a splendidly romantic place to begin a search from.”

And okay, officially I can excuse this in a lot of different ways. Like: Losing a kid is very baffling, and a lot of time has gone by, and he doesn’t know what to feel. Or: You can’t be in total agony all the time and you might as well take pleasure where you can like in how romantic a place is.

But I’m sorry. He sounds like Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane having fun tracking down the murderer in Have His Carcase, which is officially Very Serious Business but is not infrequently just an excuse for them to enjoy themselves and be silly and humorously appreciate the drama of the situation. And that’s what Hilary sounds like he’s doing here, although actually he’s looking for his kid. He carries on being silly for another minute or two and then back he goes into misery, without seeming to notice that his mood changed at all.

(Sidebar: Audrey Niffenegger says that Henry and Clare were based on Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. I just can hardly imagine two people less like Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, which I’m sure is partly due to the characters’ developing a great deal during the writing process but is also indicative of how amazingly differently people read. John Tregarth and Peter Wimsey is a fair enough connection, but Henry DeTamble and Peter Wimsey, I can’t see it.)

What was good – excellent, actually – about this book were the interactions between Hilary and the little orphanage boy who might or might not be his son. These bits of the book were tense and interesting and moving, and if they hadn’t been there I would have gone straight to the end, discovered what was going to happen, and chucked the book down without finishing it, because the rest of the bits (mostly) were not interesting at all. I think this is because Hilary never really settles into a clear character and that made it difficult to care much what happened to him. Jean, the little boy, is a real boy, and that, I believe, is why the bits with him come off gorgeously.



The other thing I didn’t like was that Hilary decides at the end that he can love this boy as a son even though he isn’t sure it’s his son, and then when he’s going back to the orphanage to fetch him, Jean says something that makes it entirely clear he’s the right kid. I think ambiguity would have been better, to have Jean say something that suggests he’s remembering something about his life before the orphanage that indicates he’s Hilary’s son, but still leave the reader in some doubt.

Nonetheless I enjoyed Little Boy Lost, and I can easily see picking it up again sometime. At the library. I wouldn’t buy it, unless, I suppose, I had a massive library and lots of money to buy books just on the strength of feeling that I might possibly someday want to read them again maybe.