"This is the saddest story I have ever heard. It begins, like all true stories, who knows where. Looking for the beginning is like trying to discover the source of a river. You paddle upstream for months under a burning sun, between towering green walls of dripping jungle, soggy maps disintegrating in your hands. You are driven half mad by false hopes, malicious swarms of biting insects, and the tricks of memory, and all you reach in the end - the ultima Thule of the whole ridiculous quest - is a damp spot in the jungle or, in the case of a story, some perfectly meaningless word or gesture. And yet, at some more or less arbitrary place along the way between the damp spot and the sea the cartographer inserts the point of his compass, and there the Amazon begins."
I never thought I'd be moved by a rat. A rat! That most slithering, scheming of nocturnal creatures. They spread the bubonic plague, and who knows what else besides. They're dirty, they eat garbage and humans have a natural fear of them. They make my skin crawl. I didn't think a rat could ever move me nearly to tears.
Meet Firmin, a most unusual rat. He was born inauspiciously, as rats generally are, one of thirteen babies born to an alcoholic mother. The runt of the litter, he's the only one born with his eyes open, a fact that's significant. Firmin and his siblings are born in the basement of a bookshop. The room is packed, unsurprisingly, with books. His mother chooses one, in this case Joyce's Finnegans Wake, to shred for their bed. On this book Firmin cuts his literary teeth, and that's no exaggeration.
After weeks spent fighting for a spot at his mother's teats, constantly pushed aside by his bigger and stronger siblings, Firmin starts chewing on books:
"I must have put away whole chapters by the time I was old enough to toddle on wobby fours out of our dark corner and into the flickering bigness. I am convinced that these masticated pages furnished the nutritional foundation for - and perhaps even directly caused, what I with modesty shall call my unusual mental development."
Unusual, indeed. From a source of fiber to fill his aching stomach, books soon became more than a nutritional interest. Firmin trains himself to read (suspend disbelief, Savage makes it work). Soon he's digesting books in the metaphorical sense, consuming them at an ever-increasing rate. He reads everything, from fiction to philosophy and beyond. He can even tell an author by the way his or her books taste. In the outside world, rifling through garbage, he'll come upon a taste that reminds him of Emily Dickinson, or James Joyce, or any of the other writers whose books he's tasted. He comes to acquire a very discerning palate, one influenced by literature.
After a certain point he naturally becomes curious about what more there is in the world, so he explores tunnels through the building built by former rats. Eventually he comes upon the bookshop itself, and soon after he sees the owner, Norman, for the first time. Firmin grows to love the sight of the man, imagining he could bring him around to becoming a friend. But there's an obstacle. Firmin can't talk, so he keeps adoring him from afar, going so far as to retrieve a yellow rose from the streets (a rose stomped on by a rejected lover who's just broken up with his girlfriend), leaving it in Norman's coffee cup one morning. Rather than beguiling Norman, it frankly creeps him out. It starts to become obvious this friendship doesn't have a really great chance. But still Firmin looks upon the man with a misty-eyed sort of love and respect. At least until something happens that disillusions him and breaks his little rat heart.
Through Norman, Firmin (which rhymes with "vermin," of course, the author reminds us) meets a writer named Jerry, who lives in the same building as the bookshop. Jerry, coincidentally, has written a book with a rat as a main character. He's basically an aging, unsuccessful writer, but Firmin doesn't see that. He sees a struggling artist, trying hard to further his craft but only being beaten down by society. Jerry takes care of Firmin, taking him in after he'd broken an ankle on the streets, left to die the death of an anonymous rat. He nurses the rat back to health. They listen to music together, and share food. For a while they live a relatively happy life, though Firmin can see the unhappiness of the writer. He can see it in the alcoholism that reminds him of his mother, and in the periods of deep depression in which Jerry forgets the rat even exists.
Eventually things change, as they always do. The neighborhood falls further and further into disrepair, threatening Firmin's haunts and driving the bookshop into debt. Firmin himself ages, becoming less able to take his own tunnels in and out of the building, in order to find the bookshop and the places he's assured of finding exotic foods like popcorn and Snickers bars. But in the end, we have no doubt of the dignity, and difference, in this rat. He's struggled hard, and against overwhelming odds. He's loved, most often in an unrequited sense, and he's lost. Ultimately he feels despair, but also a sense of triumph. This is an educated rat, a rat who's fought and scratched his way out of the literal and proverbial basement. He's gone places, and seen things, and along the way he's read a whole lot of books. Firmin is a rat above the rest, and if you're not cheering for him by the end, and possibly swallowing down a big lump in your throat, then I would be very surprised.
I loved Firmin. Pure and simple.
"You laugh. You are right to laugh. I was once - despite my unpleasant mien - a hopeless romantic, that most ridiculous of creatures. And a humanist, too, equally hopeless. And yet despite - or is it because? - of these failings I was able to meet a lot of fabulous people and a lot of fabulous geniuses too in the course of my early education. I got on conversational terms with all the Big Ones. Dostoevsky and Strindberg, for example. In them I was quick to recognize fellow sufferers, hysterics like me. And from them I learned a valuable lesson - that no matter how small you are, your madness can be as big as anyone's."
Published by: Coffee House Press, 2006