Excerpt from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog

By Muriel Barbery

The Elegance of the Hedgehog
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  • Paperback: Sep 2008,
    336 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Megan Shaffer

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Despite all that, despite all this good fortune and all this wealth, I have known for a very long time that the final destination is the goldfish bowl. How do I know? Well, the fact is I am very intelligent. Exceptionally intelligent, in fact. Even now, if you look at children my age, there's an abyss. And since I don't really want to stand out, and since intelligence is very highly rated in my family — an exceptionally gifted child would never have a moment's peace — I try to scale back my performance at school, but even so I always come first. You might think that to pretend to be simply of average intelligence when you are twelve years old like me and have the level of a senior in college is easy. Well, not at all. It really takes an effort to appear stupider than you are.

But, in a way, this does keep me from dying of boredom: all the time I don't need to spend learning and understanding I use to imitate the ordinary good pupils — the way they do things, the answers they give, their progress, their concerns and their minor errors. I read everything that Constance Baret writes — she is second in the class — all her math and French and history and that way I find out what I have to do: for French a string of words that are coherent and spelled correctly; for math the mechanical reproduction of operations devoid of meaning; and for history a list of events joined by logical connections. But even if you compare me to an adult, I am much smarter than the vast majority. That's the way it is. I'm not particularly proud of this because it's not my doing. But one thing is sure — there's no way I'm going to end up in the goldfish bowl. I've thought this through quite carefully. Even for someone like me who is supersmart and gifted in her studies and different from everyone else, in fact superior to the vast majority — even for me life is already all plotted out and so dismal you could cry: no one seems to have thought of the fact that if life is absurd, being a brilliant success has no greater value than being a failure. It's just more comfortable. And even then: I think lucidity gives your success a bitter taste, whereas mediocrity still leaves hope for something.

So I've made up my mind. I am about to leave childhood behind and, in spite of my conviction that life is a farce, I don't think I can hold out to the end. We are, basically, programmed to believe in something that doesn't exist, because we are living creatures; we don't want to suffer. So we spend all our energy persuading ourselves that there are things that are worthwhile and that that is why life has meaning. I may be very intelligent, but I don't know how much longer I'm going to be able to struggle against this biological tendency. When I join the adults in the rat race, will I still be able to resist this feeling of absurdity? I don't think so. That is why I've made up my mind: at the end of the school year, on the day I turn thirteen, June sixteenth, I will commit suicide. Careful now, I have no intention of making a big deal out of it, as if it were an act of bravery or defiance. Besides, it's in my best interests that no one suspect a thing. Adults have this neurotic relationship with death, it gets blown out of all proportion, they make a huge deal out of it when in fact it's really the most banal thing there is. What I care about, actually, is not the thing in itself, but the way it's done. My Japanese side, obviously, is inclined toward seppuku. When I say my Japanese side, what I mean is my love for Japan. I'm in the eighth grade so, naturally, I chose Japanese as my second foreign language. The teacher isn't great, he swallows his words in French and spends his time scratching his head as if he were puzzled, but the textbook isn't bad and since the start of the year I've made huge progress. I hope in a few months to be able to read my favorite mangas in the original. Maman doesn't understand that a little-girl-as-gifted-as-you-are wants to read mangas. I haven't even bothered to explain to her that "manga" in Japanese doesn't mean anything more than "comic book." She thinks I'm high on subculture and I haven't set her straight on that. In short, in a few months I might be able to read Taniguchi in Japanese. But back to what we were talking about: I'll have to do it before June sixteenth because on June sixteenth I'm committing suicide. But I won't do seppuku. It would be full of significance and beauty but . . . well . . . I really have no desire to suffer. In fact, I would hate to suffer; I think that if you have decided to die, it is precisely because your decision is in the nature of things, so you must do it in a gentle way. Dying must be a delicate passage, a sweet slipping away to rest. There are people who commit suicide by jumping out of the window of the fourth floor or swallowing bleach or even hanging themselves! That's senseless! Obscene, even. What is the point of dying if not to not suffer? I've devoted great care to planning how I'll exit the scene: every month for the last year I've been pilfering a sleeping pill from Maman's box on the night-table. She takes so many that she wouldn't even notice if I took one every day, but I've decided to be particularly careful. You can't leave anything to chance when you've made a decision that most people won't understand. You can't imagine how quickly people will get in the way of your most heartfelt plans, in the name of such trifles as "the meaning of life" or "love of mankind." Oh and then there is "the sacred nature of childhood."

Excerpted from The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery, translated from the French by Alison Anderson. Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions. All rights reserved.

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