Cheeta and Tarzan (Johnny Weissmuller)
My first read from the Booker shortlist is 'Me Cheeta' by James Laver. This just happened to be the first novel to arrive in the post from Amazon, and it is an unusual addition to the Booker shortlist in that it is a comic novel, a spoof Hollywood memoir 'written' by the chimpanzee Cheeta, who starred in the Tarzan movies of the 30s and 40s. The strength of the novel lies in Cheeta's uniquely bitchy, scathing voice and razor-sharp comments about the movie stars of the day. He hates Chaplin with a passion ("a mono-maniacal bore unstoppably propagandizing his own sexual status"), sees Mickey Rooney as his unworthy rival and has a bad word to say about just about everyone except his beloved Johnny. Some of the gossip is breathtakingly outrageous (a chapter on Esther Williams, titled "Fucking Bitch!", is "removed on legal advice").
But this is not just a scurrilous attack on the movie stars of the Golden Age. It chronicles the loving friendship that Cheeta shared with Tarzan (swimming star and actor Johnny Weissmuller) and there is a real poignancy to Cheeta's attempts to become one of the family, a companion to Weissmuller, rather than, as seems to be the case, something of a variety act that gets wheeled out to do party tricks (drinking and smoking being his particular vices, along with a propensity for masturbation). Lever heavily critiques the use of animals in showbusiness, with Cheeta's fantasy honorary Oscar acceptance speech being dedicated to "every animal that has ever suffered for its cinematic art". Cheeta considers himself fortunate to be 'rehabilitated' from his early life in the jungle of Africa, and welcomes the human race's attempts to remove animals from- nay destroy- their natural habitats:
You know there are slightly more tigers in America today than there are left in the wild? It should be stressed that that's not a cause for celebration just yet: the job's only half-finished... Yes, destroying the forests themselves helps, but we need to get those percentages turned around.There are some beautiful passages at the beginning of the book describing Cheeta's pre-Hollywood life in the jungle, although his time in the wild is by no means romanticised, it is quite literally a fight for survival.
There are, then, two very different 'sides' to this book: a satirical view of our treatment of animals, and the bitchy spoof Hollywood memoir. They work well together but the limited storytelling potential of a chimpanzee's imagined life experience isn't quite enough to keep the momentum going and I found my interest dipping a little about three-quarters of the way through. I know that some Amazon reviewers have questioned why it is in the Booker shortlist, for me I think the writing is actually very beautiful in places. It is a clever and funny book but not one I would pick up to re-read. I don't think it will win the prize but I can see why it was well-received. It's just not a big enough book to be a winner.