August is Women in Translation Month, the reasons for which are discussed by Katy Derbyshire here on the Freeword Centre site, and elsewhere.
So it is a fitting moment to write about Marie-Sabine Roger‘s joyful novel Soft in the Head, published in 2016 by Pushkin Press and translated by Frank Wynne.
Germain has been looked down on and insulted all his life, by his mother, his teacher and his so-called friends. He’s left school functionally illiterate and thinking of himself as an idiot, and he lives in a caravan at the bottom of his mother’s garden. When he’s not working or in the bar, or whittling wood, Germain likes to sit in the park, counting the pigeons. One day, as he arrives at the park, there’s “this little old lady who looked like she was the type to throw breadcrumbs to get them to come to her” sitting on a bench near the pigeons. Germain’s heart sinks, but the old lady doesn’t act as he expects.
She didn’t stare at me out of the corner of her eye the way most people do when I count.
She stayed very still. But then, just as I was about to leave, she said:
This is the start of an unusual and touching friendship between Germain and the 86-year-old Margueritte that changes both their lives for the better. Margueritte is a retired scientist with a deep passion for books. She begins reading to Germain, first from Camus’ The Plague, and then from other books. At first he only thinks of it as “not unpleasant”, something to keep your ears busy, but soon he is hooked. Margueritte tells Germain that he is “a true reader” because reading starts with listening. This is the first time that anyone has taken him seriously, and as a result, he comes out of the defensive persona he has adopted, and slowly blossoms.
I loved the relationship between the two of them, which is gruff and warm, all at once. And I particularly appreciated Frank Wynne’s achievement in capturing each of their distinct voices. Germain is rough and, initially, crude, while Margueritte is clipped and precise, or as Germain puts it:
She had a complicated way of talking, with more frills and laces than a tart’s knickers, the way posh people talk.
There is also word-play of the sort where the apparent effortlessness of the translation shows just how much work has gone into it. And personally, I enjoyed seeing little bits of Irishness come through in words such as “banjaxed”.
There is sadness in this book – loneliness, cruelty and a soul starved of affection – but there is so much joy too. In words, in language, in books, and in friendship.
Words are boxes that we use to store thoughts the better to present them to others. Show them to their best advantage. For example, on days when you just feel like kicking anything that moves, you can just sulk. Problem is, people might think you’re ill, or depressed. Whereas if you just say out loud: Don’t piss me around, I’m really not in the mood today! It avoids all sorts of confusion.
Apparently “up lit” is a thing now. So there’s a fancy term for books like this, that make you feel better about the world without sugar-coating it. I’d love to see more of them in translation. The world is grim enough without always having to read miserable books. When I tweeted my enjoyment of this book, Frank Wynne replied that it had been a “joy to translate” and that joy really shines through. Lovely.
Pingback: Women in Translation Month 2019: 10 Books | a discount ticket to everywhere