Sam Savage - Firmin: Adventures of a Metropolitan Lowlife


The "others", in this case, being our narrator's fellow citizens of a run-down neighbourhood in 1960s Boston. Born in the basement of a used bookstore (his crib lined with shredded pages of Finnegan's Wake), neglected by his alcoholic mother, bullied by his siblings, young Firmin has to feed and raise himself - the thirteenth child to a mother with twelve tits.

(Yeah, he's a rat.)

And so Firmin starts eating books. And then reading books. As the others grow strong and leave the basement to mate, scrounge for food and get run over in the street, Firmin stays behind, the smartest and loneliest rat in the world, ravenously reading his way through the entire published world of literature - from the Great Books to religious pamphlets, sci-fi novels to long-debunked medical theories and maps of the world. He teaches himself to read, teaches himself to critique, to discuss, to interpret... only that as a rat, he has no one to discuss it with. Other rats avoid him (as he them), and this being pre-computer age with its feather-touch keyboards, there is no way for him to communicate with humans; he can only squeak, and he's too weak to work a typewriter. As far as anyone can see, he's just a rat to be poisoned or stomped on. For a long time, his entire world is made up of books and the local cinema, which only shows old black-n-white Hollywood movies and cheap porn. And then something happens...

Name-dropping time: Firmin reads a bit like a tragicomic(er) Tales From Underground filtered through Fritz The Cat. I'd say it's what Auster was trying to do with Timbuktu, except it's much too sentimental (in a good way) to be Auster. But above all - and this reference might be a little obscure - I'm reminded of Hrabal's Too Loud A Solitude, which is eerily similar yet completely different. Two rat-infested basements, two outsiders-by-necessity who, pursued by the authorities, build their own world from books, two short novels about the power and lack of comfort offered by literature... Yet Savage has created something pretty unique: a narrator who could have been unbearably cute but instead is one of the most touching anti-heroes I've come across in a long time, a metafictional short sharp shock (148 pages), a very poignant tale of lonely people unable to connect to others (some rats, some humans), and a story that first cracks me up and then gradually turns the screws until we know that this can never end well. Firmin is just a rat, so he fits perfectly in that proverbial handbasket we're all in whether we realize it or not.

(And Hell, as Jean-Paul Sratre pointed out, is other rats.)

I'm sorry. That last piece was exactly the sort of pun that makes this sound like a joke. It's not. It's one of the most rewarding reads I've had all year, and I really hope more people will give it a shot. Firmin deserves that.



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