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The elegance of the hedgehog

30 October 2012

The Elegance of the HedgehogThe Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This ia a book about life seen through the eyes of the 54-year-old concierge (caretaker) of a block of flats in Paris, inhabited by rich people.

Renée grew up in a rural area, in a peasant family. She left school at 12, and her husband Lucien died some years previously, so she lives in her lodge with her television and her cat Leo (named after her favourite author, Tolstoy), and she fills her spare time reading. As a result she is probably more well-read and better informed than most of the residents of the flats, who, however, barely notice her.

One of the residents, however, has something in common with Renée. This is 12-year-old Paloma Josse, who feels oppressed by her parents and elder sister, and has a similar love of reading, and so is better informed in some ways than the rest of her family. She hates the idea of growing up to be like them, and so plans to commit suicide on her 13th birthday. In the mean time, she records her profound thoughts, and movements in the physical world that she observes.

In some ways, the book reminded me of Sophie’s world by Jostein Gaarder, which I read a few years ago, at least in the sense that the viewpoint characters, Renée and Paloma, express their philosophy of life.

I really enjoyed this book a lot, and I think it has a great deal to say about life and human relationships in South Africa, where the gap between rich and poor his as great, if not greater, than in France, and is probably still growing.

There is a sense in which it catches the essence of ubuntu, and it reminded me of an old man, Africa, who has been painting our fence for the last few weeks. He wanders around, asking to do odd jobs, and begging for a crust of bread if there is no work available. I imagine many people in the middle-class suburbs where he wanders regard him in much the same way as the residents of the posh Paris flats looked on Renée the caretaker, hardly seeing him at all.

Siliki Africa Mokgotlo

I thought I should write him a reference. He has done quite a good job of painting our 90 metres of fence. A while back he repaired and painted our roof. I looked it up and discovered that it was 12 years ago, and was quite shocked to see how long ago it was. Perhaps we’ll have another handyman job for him in 12 years’ time, but by then we’ll probably both be dead. So in the meantime, if anyone living in Tshwane has some painting or handyman-type jobs they need doing, perhaps you could think of Siliki Africa Mokgotlo, and give him a ring at 073-618-2288. No, he’s not as well-read as Renée the concierge, and won’t keep you entertained with philosophy and insights into literature, but Renée’s observations of the people who observe her probably apply equally to the rich people that Africa meets. Because of his age, he works slowly, but he is thorough.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. 1 November 2012 12:56 pm

    I’ve ordered a copy of the book — thanks for your comments about it. Thanks too for the words about Siliki Africa Mokgotlo and the photo of him. His luminous face makes me think of the word “beatitude.”
    Jim Forest

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  1. Can an android understand ubuntu? « Notes from underground

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