First of all, you must be aware that I’ve resisted for a while before writing anything nasty about this book. Proper book blog etiquette seems to demand restraint and politeness when dealing with a book one dislikes. Some even state that bloggers should just talk about books they like and not write any disparaging review. But what’s a girl to do when all she wants during her reading is to throw the thing across the room? (a milder version than tearing pages apart and throwing them down into the river Seine…)
In short, this book reminded me of all the reasons why I have prejudices against my fellow countrymen’s literature: snobbishness veiled in good feelings, no plot, two-dimensional characters as pretext for philosophy and class prejudice. I struggle against my own prejudice, but here I am, back to square one. This story has been a huge success last year and there were weeks where all the people reading in the metro were carrying this book. I don’t get it. And no, I’m not jealous.
The two main characters live in the same upper-class building in Paris: on one hand a female caretaker, fiftyish widow whose look meets all the clichés of her profession: ugly, gruff and low-class; on the other a privileged, slightly depressive 12-year-old brat. The story is alternately told by one and the other. The author’s point is that there is more to people than mere appearances: the caretaker and the brat are actually highly-sensitive intellectuals just hiding away under a clichéd disguise because people around them don’t understand them. The young brat loves haiku and just pretends to sulk, the caretaker reads Kant on the sly, with her TV blaring out cheap music. Until the day when a wealthy Japanese man comes to live in the building, sees through them and appreciate their true worth.
My main problem is that the reversal of clichés is only limited to the two main characters. All others around them are wealthy, superficial, snobbish bourgeois. What is it with my fellow countrymen to like so much spitting on the upper-class? Since they’re bourgeois, their taste is vulgar and they’re unable to look at the world and appreciate its beauty. On the contrary, caretakers are so much more human and sensitive. Gosh… this got me really angry. The only nice person around is the Japanese outsider, but I would be tempted to say that the only acceptable way to be rich and nice in a French novel is to be exotic, and Mr. Ozu fits the bill to perfection, as he arrives in the building, sophisticated and mysterious, with his bonsais and his wisdom in tow.
The two main characters may be described as highly intelligent (the reader is supposed to be impressed by a few deep thoughts about Kant and haikus), but they strike me as nasty and ungenerous as well. They hate the people around and never try to go beyond mere appearances, while complaining that others treat them the same. They also have a tendency to preach and distil their knowledge in a very superior way. I really couldn’t commiserate with them.
I don’t know whether a translation into English is in preparation. I’d say that it wouldn’t appeal to the English-speaking world in the same way as in France. I’ve never read American or British novels that ridicule rich people in the same systematic way: to take a light subject, I remember Sophie Kinsella’s funny satire of rich lawyers and parvenus in The Undomestic Goddess, but the lawyers weren’t criticized because of their class but because of their obsession with work, parvenus were suitably vulgar and superficial, but they were generous too. Sometimes I think French people still do have a problem with the Revolution, even more than 200 years afterwards…