In 2006, author Muriel Barbery struck gold with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a book that became a bestseller and quickly sold a million copies throughout multiple countries. In her latest novel to be translated into English, A Single Rose, Barbery exhibits the same delicate prose while also exhibiting an extraordinary appreciation for Japan. The novel concerns the grief and loss of a woman’s father and the culture-shock that transpires as she flies to Japan to tend to her father’s will and last wishes. A surprising romance for Paul, her father’s assistant, and Japanese culture blossoms as Barbery guides readers through a tour of Japan.
Barbery spoke with PW about her appreciation for Japan, the emotional toll of loss, and how both love and loss are present in in all her books.
A Single Rose deals with timeless and incredibly timely themes such as loss, loneliness, and the need to belong. It also taps into the complexities of familial bonds. How did the novel come about?
For quite a while I had in mind the idea to tell the story of a woman from her birth to her death, covering a few decades. Instead, it became one week in Japan. I found out that I was no longer interested in a lengthy narrative but in the very moment when someone’s life changes radically. I also knew that I was ready to write about Japan, that I wanted flowers to be involved, and that my heroine would be experiencing a sort of cure, turning her suffering into joy. Then the rest came naturally: the Japanese father, the loneliness, the loss, the challenge of love, the call for beauty. These topics define me. They are present in all my novels but each time I try to shape them differently, approaching them from a different angle.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a redemptive journey about inner beauty. The Life of Elves is a quest for enchantment in a nihilistic and distracted world, and A Strange Country continues the quest while mindful of the dire conditions of our ailing planet. What kind of quest will readers take when they pick up A Single Rose?
An intimate quest for sure, but while following Rose’s journey in Kyōto, we also see how she connects with the immensity of human life. She opens to others and to invisible legacies that go far beyond herself in a way she would never have imagined. That being said, I would simply call it an existential quest.
The novel contains Japanese folk tales interspersed throughout and act almost like intermissions between Rose’s narrative. What was the motivation behind including the tales?
When the novel was released in France, I was surprised that most readers thought these little parables to be part of Japanese and Chinese folklore. But they are entirely made up even if they feature some real historical characters! I wanted them to be in a "Zen fashion," throwing some paradoxes in Rose’s path to show the complexity of her personal metamorphosis. Actually, in both parts of the book, they echo each other and demarcate the risks she has to take if she wants to learn how to live: the risk of suffering, failing, giving, facing the unknown, loving and changing. But they do it while asking questions more than giving answers, which is something I like very much in Asian culture and especially in Zen.
Like your other books, A Single Rose displays an appreciation for Japan and Japanese culture. What parts of Japanese culture do you find interesting?
A Single Rose is set in a very small part of Kyōto, which is already a peculiar city within Japan. This part of the city is very particular; it doesn’t say much about contemporary Japan but at the same time it gives access to the core of Japanese culture: the adoration of beauty and spirit via a mingling of nature and art.
Rose’s stint in Japan begins by visiting temples as part of her father’s dying requests. It also helps illustrate the importance of cultural history, human connection, and intimacy. How does A Single Rose use history to help guide Rose to a form of acceptance, not only her father but also herself?
While exploring Kyōto, I felt that some ancient wisdom was passing through me in a way that I had never experienced before. It’s a strange feeling that actually has not only to do with history (I know very little about Japanese history) but also and mainly with culture. Culture creates an intimacy and even a friendship among human beings who have never met but are giving each other a legacy – and the legacy of Kyōto is about humility and beauty, respect and faith in spirit.
The intimacies surrounding both Rose’s recently deceased father, Haru Ueno, and the unexpected attraction to his assistant, Paul, are infinitely complex and incredibly well-rendered. How did you so accurately capture the often-ephemeral qualities of love?
Is there anything more important than love? And at the same time, isn’t it the trickiest thing in our lives? Are we able to love properly? To love enough? To love genuinely? To do the people we love some good? The frontier between joy and desolation, between the possibility of love and its opposite, is so thin that I am fascinated with the moment a meeting turns into friendship or love. How can we seize it or, on the contrary, are we doomed to let it slip? How will we be able to take that risk and embrace that endeavor? I think I write novels to capture and celebrate this mystery.