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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Me Cheeta by James Lever

Apologies for the long radio silence. This was simply because I haven’t finished another book for ages, due to another bout of the previously discussed challenge of engineering a satisfying succession of reads.

Right after the rollercoaster of the Martin Amis (Martin Amis!), I felt I needed something much more measured and picked up a work by Elizabeth Taylor – not the American actress, the wonderful and insufficiently lauded British 20th century novelist.

Knowing that there are still ten Elizabeth Taylor novels left for me to read is one of the great comforts of my life. I’ve only read one so far – In A Summer Season - and loved it so much I am saving the rest up, just as I don’t wear Prada shoes for a year or so after I’ve bought them, because they’re simply too special to wear when new (plus I hate being too obviously ‘on season’).

Post-Martin felt like the perfect moment for the cool and restrained Ms Taylor, but after luxuriating in the first couple of chapters, I decided I wanted to save it a bit longer, for a moment all its own, rather than as a literary sorbet between heavier courses. A particularly exquisite form of torture, it teases me from my bedside.

So then I cast around for more of a throwaway read and settled on Me Cheeta, which I had read discussed on Twitter and heard discussed on Radio 4. It’s a very clever and amusing idea – the autobiography of the chimp who played Cheeta in the Tarzan movies. Note the prefix auto, there.

The world-weary actor memoir voice and hilariously bored namedropping are perfectly rendered, but a few chapters in the word ‘clever’ started to resound too often in my head as I read.

‘How clever!’ I kept thinking, until I realised that I was admiring the trick of the writing and the construct, rather as you would admire a trained chimp pouring a cup of tea and drinking it. How clever!

Finally, despite laudable early chapters which convey just how cruelly animals are trained to perform such ‘amusing’ tricks, with references to the very worthy, and Jane Goodall-endorsed, campaign No Reel Apes*, which is aiming for a total ban on using trained primates in films, I decided I couldn’t go on with the book.

The main reason? I just didn’t care about the narrator enough. Because I knew he wasn’t real. Well, of course he is real, he’s a real chimp, but the anthropomorphised version in the book isn’t real. And the last thing you want spoiling your enjoyment of fiction is notions of comparative reality.

Did I not enjoy E. Nesbitt because the psammead is not a real creature? Was Twilight less of a thrill because vampires aren’t ‘real’? No! Being totally caught up in stories of imagined creatures and situations is the whole point of fiction. To free us from the constraints of dreary reality, while shining light back upon it. Once the suspension of disbelief is slightly torn it’s all over.

So while I doff my hat to the brilliance of the concept of Me Cheetah, the cleverness of the voice - and it is very funny in parts - I decided, according to my rule of putting down books which don’t fully engage me in this year of active reading, to move on.

I might pick it up at a later date, for more of the Hollywood 'Golden Era' content which the reviews raved about, but just for the moment, I want to read a book I feel completely immersed in.

I have found one and I'm reading as fast as I can (clue: it's 600 plus pages long...)

* I wanted to put a link to the campaign on here, but I can’t find it online. If anyone else can, please let me know.


  1. sounds like it's bathing smugly in it's own conceit

  2. I can truthfully say that Elizabeth Taylor's books have been one of my life's great pleasures. Her short stories are superb; I need to re read them. I expect you have read Elizabeth Jane Howard another subtle and elegant writer.