One of the joys of the Booker Prize list is when I’m introduced to a novel I would not otherwise choose to read - and Me Cheeta certainly fits that bill. And a good job I took a chance on it because I was hooked after a just a few pages.
I know a fair bit about primates and next to nothing about the Golden Age of Hollywood but neither were a barrier to enjoying this book. Whilst specific names and films and incidents meant little to me the overall tone kept me engaged throughout. Cheeta’s story bears much relevance to our current celebrity obsessed culture, where hopefuls fling themselves at fame, and even minor celebrities update their autobiography every other year. At times I had to pinch myself to remember that this was fiction (sort of).
Cheeta, the ultimate unreliable narrator, played varied appealing roles within his life story, and I’m left with many memorable moments. There were scenes of innocence and experience - eating his first banana, seeing stuffed heads of walls and commenting on the animal loving nature of the home-owner. A master of faux naivety, the reader rapidly realises that Cheeta knows far more than he is letting on, such as when he calls a plane an ‘iron bird’ when knowing full well both it’s make and model.
There were moments of existential wisdom -
‘A human trying to act a chimpanzee is somehow pathetic, whereas a chimpanzee trying to act a human is funny because… well, why is that? Something to do with aspiration. You think we’re pure and want to be us. We know you’re not pure, but we still aspire to be you.’
and heartbreaking poetry -
‘I still felt scattered, like the golden light rippling on the underside of a bridge.’
Me Cheeta does what many of the best of the old films does, it makes you laugh, it makes you cry, and it sucks you in despite any reservations you may hold. Earlier copies of the novel name Cheeta as the author, and online articles talk of James Lever merely ghost-writing the autobiography, so it’s hard to know who to credit with the achievement. But it’s fun and unexpected and great to see such a banana skin slipped in amongst the more serious Booker longlisters.