#WITMonth and Soft in the Head – Marie-Sabine Roger (translated by Frank Wynne)

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August 1st means it’s my favourite month in the whole of the book community calendar – Women in Translation Month or WITMonth for short. It’s the month when I discover the most new-to-me books and authors. All month I’ll be featuring reviews of books written by women from around the world and translated into English. Join in by choosing something to read, blogging/tweeting about it using the #WITMonth hashtag to share your thoughts. If you want to know more about why the focus on translated books by women, have a look at founder Meytal’s blog where she discusses some bookish stats about the gender balance of translated works. Rachel Cooke also wrote a good piece for The Guardian recently on why translated fiction is having a moment in the UK. I look forward to hearing/reading about the books you’ve all chosen. My first review is of an international bestseller from France…

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I’ve decided to adopt Margueritte. She’ll be eighty-six any day now so there seemed no point putting it off. Old people have a tendency to die.

Our narrator, Germain, spends his days measuring trees with his hands, training to run for as long as possible, shooting tin cans with an air rifle, whittling wood to make animals and figurines and going to the park to count the pigeons. On the way to the park, he adds his name in capital letters to the war memorial. It’s repeatedly cleaned off and Germain gets a bollocking but he continues to do it.

One Monday at the park, he meets Margueritte, who’s sitting on a bench also counting the pigeons. They strike up a conversation.

I don’t often laugh when I’m with women. Not old women, at any rate.

It’s strange, I felt like we were friends, the two of us. Well, not really, but something quite like it. Since then, I’ve tracked down the work I needed: allies.

Germain’s not very intelligent. His mother has referred to him as a ‘halfwit’, ‘the retard’, ‘the idiot’ and ‘you stupid bastard’. She’s not a model parent. She wasn’t bothered whether he went to school or not, so he didn’t. Turned off by a primary school teacher who bullied and humiliated him: To be that much of a bastard takes talent, I think. Margueritte, however, has plenty of patience. As she and Germain begin to meet regularly on the bench in the park, she discovers he doesn’t like reading. As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Margueritte has quietly resolved to turn the functionally illiterate Germain into a reader. She shares with him a short passage about pigeons from Camus’ The Plague and then…

“Would you like me to read you a few passages? I enjoy reading aloud and I so rarely have the opportunity. As I’m sure you understand, if I started to read aloud sitting here alone on my bench, I think people might start to worry about my sanity…”

I said:

“You’re absolutely right, they’d take you for a doddery old bat – no offence…”

[…]

Margueritte started to read, in her quiet, muffled voice. And then, maybe because she got caught up in the story, she started talking louder, and using different voices to let you know when there were different characters.

When you hear how brilliantly she does it, it doesn’t matter how unwilling or uninterested you are, it’s too late. You’re trapped. Or at least I was, that first time – I was knocked for six.

The précis for Soft in the Head made me think that the book might be too twee or syrupy for my taste but Germain’s voice, which is blunt and brash, and his back story, which Roger treats with a light touch but is really quite dark and upsetting, prevents it from being so. And really, what book lover could resist a tale of someone’s life changing when they’re taught to read in adulthood?

 

Thanks to Pushkin Press for the review copy.