“All this leads me to the conclusion that with people, it’s just the same: just because you’re uncultivated doesn’t mean you’re not cultivable. You just need to stumble on the right gardener.” – Germain Chazes
In Soft in the Head, Marie-Sabine Roger tells the story of an unlikely friendship that develops between a middle-aged man and an elderly woman who connect over a mutual love of pigeons and words. Germain Chazes has been neglected and emotionally abused by his mother and ridiculed by his peers for being slow. Margueritte is a retired teacher who is slowly going blind. Germain and Margueritte bond over their interest in counting the number of pigeons in the park.
According to his friend Landremont, Germain is just smart enough to realize how stupid he is, but as the story unfolds, we learn Germain can learn – is even self-motivated to learn – under the right circumstances. In fact, Germain is not as “stupid” as everyone except Margueritte believes him to be. In primary school, he had a bad teacher who belittled him consistently; he learned nothing from the teacher and was left feeling worthless. As an adult, he describes his life as a “shit sandwich but someone forgot the bread.”
Margueritte changes his view on both learning and himself when she introduces him to books. She reads to him from Camus’s The Plague and gives him a dictionary so he can expand his limited vocabulary. From then on, Germain demonstrates his new-found knowledge by giving synonyms throughout the narration: “that’s a real disillusion – see also: disenchantment, disappointment.” By the end of the book, both Germain’s attitude and his life have undergone a profound transformation, and he finds a touching way to repay Margueritte for the gift she’s given him.
Soft in the Head is a quick, light read that speaks to the power of both language and education. Things fall together a little too perfectly for Germain at the end – there is a convenient death, among other things – but the book never becomes saccharine. The book is not an in-depth character study or infused with gritty realism; instead, it works almost on the level of a fairy tale or allegory. Like Sleeping Beauty, Germain is awoken from his functional illiteracy by Margueritte’s friendship and her gentler approach to teaching him how to read and appreciate the beauty of language.
The one thing that jarred me, especially early on, is that the translator used British slang in a French setting. Terms such as “bugger off” and “chavs” are mixed in with references to playing belote and the boulevard de la Libération. But this linguistic bobble was not enough to keep me from enjoying both the book and its message. Soft in the Head reaffirmed my belief in the power of writing to touch the heart and the power that teachers have either to squelch or inspire their students.
Soft in the Head