Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Firmin by Sam Savage

I am in love with a rat!   Not the two legged variety - which exist, believe me! - but a genuine real hairy  chinless wonder of a rat called Firmin in a delightful story by Sam Savage.   Firmin is a literary rat born in the basement of a bookshop in Scollay Square in Boston in the sixties on a bed made by his mother, Flo, from the chewed up pages of Finnegans Wake.   As Firmin describes it,'I was birthed, bedded and suckled on the defoliated carcass of the world's most unread masterpiece'.   Being the thirteenth and runt of the litter, Firmin starts to chew the pages of books to keep himself alive and shortly discovers that as he chews, he starts to read and so begins his literary career which reaches the point where he can read 400 page novels in an hour, Spinoza in a day.

As he makes headway with Russian and French novels and simple works of philosophy, so his love affair with humans grows and gradually he eschews the company of his peers and identifies with the Other.   He falls in love with Norman, the owner of the quirky bookshop, and is appalled when he catches a glimpse of himself in a mirror discovering that he is short, thick, hairy and chinless, no match for his adored Norman.   He nevertheless sets out to try and communicate with the Other by teaching himself sign language leading to an episode that is not only outrageously funny but full of pathos.   Though he ventures rarely outside the bookshop, he does find the local cinema, the Rialto which is mostly avoided by other rats because of the vermin, a voracious population of fleas and lice and also the stench of old people!   There he finds the unattainable goddess of his life, Ginger Rogers.

Through various misadventures, Firmin eventually becomes the pet of a failed sci-fi writer until the projected renovation of Scollay Square, involving the demolishing of the bookshop,  brings tragedy into his life.

This is a light, totally endearing novel and a measure of Sam Savage's skill that he can made a rat so lovable.  His descriptions of Firmin coping with his precocious intellect combined with physical weakness are masterful as are his insights into the characters who make up the regular customers to Norman's bookshop.  I guarantee you that reading this will make you hesitate - if only briefly - before putting down that rat bait again!

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