Renee is a concierge in her mid-50s. She’s spent most of her life maintaining her invisibility, hiding her intelligence under a mask of stereotypical peasant ignorance. Paloma is a super-smart twelve year old girl who lives in the building where Renee is the concierge. She has decided that on the day she turns thirteen, she’s going to kill herself and set fire to her family’s flat. Her reasoning: life is meaningless, and she’s accepted it as such. Through a shared love of all things Japanese and a catalyst of a new wealthy Japanese resident in the building, both Renee and Paloma’s lives are changed.
I’ve been reading this book for months. I started it back in the early fall when random.org picked it off my shelves for the Random Reading Challenge. After about 40 pages, I put it aside for awhile. It was…too much for me at that moment. The prose is…not dense. Dense is the wrong word. It’s not wordy, either. But…it’s almost Nabokovian in the thickness of language. I found myself bombarded with a vocabulary I couldn’t keep up with. I have a decent vocabulary, but this book was a little beyond me at the beginning. I kept falling into a stupor while trying to read. I thought the idea behind the book was interesting, but I got a little tired of word play. And I like word play.
A few weeks ago, I picked it back up. I needed something quiet and thick, so I figured this would be a good one. While I read, I kept trying to figure out how I felt. Was all this word play merely pretentious drivel? Or was it just the innocuous voices of two intelligent narrators? I couldn’t tell if the author was being snarky towards the reader or not. I suspected not, most of the time, but I had my doubts. More than once, I almost gave up reading altogether, particularly in long chapters filled with philosophical notes. Sorry, but I’m not big into philosophy presented that way.
But after Mr. Ozu, the Japanese man, arrived, the book began to come together for me. I wonder, actually, if the narrative was framed in such a way to make a reader feel the same isolated unsurity that the characters had in the beginning, and then to allow them to make sense of things and come together in the second half. If so, it was subtly done. Brilliantly so. If not, then I guess I’m just making things up again. Reading too much into it.
I did like the second half of the book a lot. I loved the message: No matter how much we look, we never really see each other except in little moments. To free ourselves from the burdens that bind us, we need to be seen, really seen, just once. That’s what I took from the book, at least. I’m sure other readers would each have their own interpretation. I was really struck, though, with this concept of vision and blindness.
The ending made me cry. It came out of nowhere, but not jarringly so, and I didn’t expect to care as much as I did. But I got teary-eyed and decided, yes, it was worth slogging through the difficult chapters in order to get to this.
Here are some of my favorite passages. Three from Paloma:
Every time, it’s the same thing, I feel like crying, my throat goes all tight and I do the best I can to control myself but sometimes it gets close: I can hardly keep myself from sobbing. So when they sing a canon I look down at the ground because it’s just too much emotion at once: it’s too beautiful, and everyone singing together, this marvelous sharing. I’m no longer myself. I am just one part of a sublime whole, to which the others also belong, and I always wonder at such moments why this cannot be the rule of everyday life, instead of being an exceptional moment, during a choir.
Thinking back on it, this evening, with my heart and my stomach all like jelly, I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never.
So here is my profound thought for the day: this is the first time I have met someone who seeks out people and who sees beyond. That may seem trivial but I think it is profound all the same. We never look beyond our assumptions and, what’s worse, we have given up trying to meet others; we just meet ourselves.
And two from Renee:
Quite abruptly I realize I am sitting in my kitchen, in Paris, in this other world where I have made my invisible little niche, a world with which I have been careful never to mix, and I am weeping great warm tears while a little girl with an incredibly warm gaze is holding my hand, gently caressing my knuckles. And I also realize that I have said it all, told her everything: …I am weeping plump, hot, long, good tears, sobbing tears, and while I am troubled, I am also incomprehensibly happy to see the transfiguration of Paloma’s sad, severe gaze into a well of warmth where I can soften my sobs.
…I am struck with incredible force by this proof that sight is like a hand that tries to seize flowing water. Yes, our eyes may perceive, yet they do not observe; they may believe, yet they do not question; they may receive yet they do not search: they are emptied of desire, with neither hunger nor passion.