Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Permanent Mirrors

My friend Dolores sent me a book, The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and for the first hundred pages or so I wondered what she had been smoking. I mean how many novels open with a conversation about Marx and throw in the word "eructation" in the first paragraph just to keep you on your linguistic toes? (No, I didn't know that it meant "belching" when I first saw it.) But, when I finished the book on the plane on my way to Asheville, NC, I did something I've never done before. I turned back to page 1 and began again.

"Hedgehog" is a translated French novel with two most unlikely central characters ... a short, squat middle-aged woman with bunions and a secret passion for art and literature ... and an intellectually gifted pre-teen bent on suicide. Both live in a luxury apartment building in Paris ... Paloma, the pre-teen as a resident, Renee, the older woman as the building's concierge.

We meet Paloma primarily through her journals as she tracks her progress toward her birthday which she has chosen as her "departure" date and one of her early entries includes her challenge to herself to make sure of her decision ...
"So if there is something on the planet that is worth living for, I'd better not miss it, because once you're dead, it's too late for regrets, and if you die by mistake, that is really, really dumb."
As part of this challenge she assembles "profound thoughts" and a journal of the "masterpieces of matter," concluding:
"With the exception of love, friendship and the beauty of Art, I don't see much else that can nurture human life. ... But Art ... if I had more time to live, Art would be my whole life."
Renee tells us her story more directly and both of them weave us through a deepening spiral of thoughts about time, beauty, art and the meaning of life until, toward the end of the book, a new-comer to the building introduces the dramatic tension that takes this book from being an intellectual exercise to a real story that will stay lodged in my memory. One of the book jacket quotes indicates that at least one counselor is prescribing the book to her patients and calls it a "toolbox that one can look into to resolve one's problems."

One of Paloma's "profound thoughts" that I found in the toolbox made me think the book might, indeed, make a good prescription ... a medicine I would voluntarily take:
"We never look beyond our assumptions and, what's worse, we have given up trying to meet others, we just meet ourselves. We don't recognize each other because other people have become our permanent mirrors. If we actually realized this, if we were to become aware of the fact that we are only ever looking at ourselves in the other person, that we are alone in the wilderness, we would go crazy.

"As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself and truly meet someone."

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