I first heard of this book when a trusted source – I must get a new euphemism for ‘person I know but only online and think has pretty reliable tastes’ – read it in the original American edition last year. I was delighted then to see that it’s being published in the UK by Weidenfeld & Nicolson soon, and wasted no time in acquiring a copy. Cuteness alert: Firmin, a book about a rat, is published with corners pre-chewed. You might find this charming: at first.
(At least that’s the way it looks on my proof copy: I’m guessing the finished version will be the same.)
Fortunately, even if the production is gimmicky, the book turns out not to be – and I never thought I’d say that for a book about a rat that can read. (I was going to add ‘Ratatouille it isn’t’ – but actually I thought Ratatouille was pretty good.) And while the charm of the chewed corners might wear off, the book itself only increases in charm – a quality difficult to fake – as the story goes on. It has that rare quality of by the end seeming like an archetype for a story that’s been around all along, which just needed to be uncovered.
Firmin – the pun is both on vermin and ‘fur-man’ which is how our hero sees himself – was the runt of a litter of rats. Left to look after himself, he finds himself in a bookshop where there’s nothing to fend off hunger but printed pages. He discovers not only that when he eats a book, he absorbs its content, but also that there was
a remarkable relation, a kind of preestablished harmony, between the taste and the literary quality of a book. To know if something was worth reading, I had only to nibble a portion of the printed area. I learned to use the title page for this, leaving the text intact. ‘Good to eat is good to read’ became my motto.
Of course, a rat of such intelligence can’t do without intellectual companionship, and he tries to make friends with the bookstore owner, and various customers and bystanders, by learning sign language – except the only words he can say are “goodbye” and “zipper”.
It wasn’t Shakespeare, but it was the best I could manage. I was able to say this by standing on my hind legs and waving a forepaw – waving goodbye – followed by a zipping motion up the chest with the same paw. I practiced in front of the mirror, wave-zip, wave-zip, until I had it down pat.
It’s a testament to Savage’s ability that in context this seems not whimsical or silly but surprisingly affecting, and when Firmin ventures out in the street to try to ‘talk’ with others like this, the scenes are filled with the pathos of any lost and lonely person’s failure to communicate with the rest of the world.
The story plays out in a shameless but appropriate way, unafraid of going for the heartstrings. Firmin also has a keen literary awareness, referencing everything bookish from famous authorial deaths to great first lines. Firmin himself feels frustration that he will never match Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier for the opening punch. “This is the saddest story I have ever heard,” he reflects. Well, maybe not, but it’s a great deal of fun.