Soft In The Head tells the tale of middle-aged Germain who lives in France with his mother. His father didn’t stick around when he was born and his mother seems to lack an ounce of maternal fibre. He only works in a haphazard fashion and he’s taken to living in a caravan at the bottom of the garden to escape his abusive mother. Into his life, however, comes Marguerite, who’s eighty-six. They meet while counting pigeons in the local park. Germain’s mother has treated and referred to him as a ‘moron’ from an early age and his pub friends make him the target of their jibes for being a bit slow on the uptake. In reality though, he’s not so dim and in meeting Marguerite he is introduced to the world of books and ideas as well as nurturing an affectionate bond. Excerpts from Camus and Romain Gary are included amongst others. He discovers he just needed the right conditions provided by Marguerite in order to cultivate a new knowledge of the world.
This was a life-affirming and very comic story, written from Germain’s perspective and with a colourful use of the vernacular. The experienced translator, Frank Wynne, is Irish and he does a sterling job in making the text flow. The French seem particularly good in writing these comic but uplifting stories about slightly marginalized characters, see, for example, Muriel Barbery’s excellent Elegance of the Hedgehog, and they’ve proven popular with readers too. This one, incidentally, was made into a film with Gerard Depardieu in the Germain role. If this book has a message it’s that we’re all capable of becoming a little more knowledgeable about the world through reading and we can understand ourselves better through relating what we read to our self-experience of the world. It’s a slightly controversial idea – that we ‘better’ ourselves through reading but in Germain’s case he understands his friends and girlfriend better through his experience with books. Also, important as a theme is the idea that everyone is valuable despite age or appearance. Despite too, the book’s light and breezy narrative, it demonstrates below the surface, a strong intelligence on Roger’s part.