This exquisite book by Muriel Barbery, begins with Rene, a concierge who is short, plump and ugly. If that sounds a bit too banal, then the exhilarating part is that her mind is the antithesis of her body: brilliant, acute, discerning, enlightened and her heart, aching for a more organic, genial relationship with the universe.
In this humdrum existence, enters the wide-eyed twelve year old Paloma. Precocious but delightful, a deeply observant and an exceptionally intelligent child, who has decided to envision the greatest number of profound thoughts and formulate each one of them into a haiku or a tanka. One such tanka goes like this:
The strong ones
And talk again
And thus begins their profound journey, a relentless search for beauty and the meaning of life. Beauty that is ephemereal, transient and yet, and a sublime level, it is an initiation to the way of consonance. Beauty is when everything is in perfect harmony, when one feels inspired by the greatness of small things. This luminous philosophy of the east made a deep impression on both Rene and Paloma and is evident in their love of the tea ritual; its repitition of gestures and accesion to simple and refined sensations. Tea, says Rene, has the extraordinary virtue of introducing in our lives, moments of serene harmony.
Rene’s ruminations on language, her contemplation on the elevation of mankind and the profound thoughts of Paloma are interspersed at the most fortuitous juncture.
“Pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language” and “pleasure without desire,existence without duration, beauty without will”, are some of the rare jewels which are timeless and have to be experienced intensively, for they rescue us from the boredom of everyday life and from human longing.
This novel speaks to us like a journal and one can feel the intimacy between the reader and its characters. If anything, this book is about searching for those moments of always within never