The English language can be a curious beast. Take the verb ‘ruminate,’ for instance. In modern usage, it generally refers to the act of thinking over something deeply. To ruminate is to contemplate, to ponder. It also has a second meaning: literally, ‘to chew.’ Next time, when you’re mulling over those deep, important thoughts of yours, you are figuratively chewing your way through them. It’s a delightful image.
I mention this because it neatly summarises the premise of Sam Savage’s Firmin. Our eponymous hero bibliophile of the highest order, finishing book after book after book in the only way he knows how: by eating them. Did I mention that Firmin is a rat?
The runt of a litter born in the basement of a Boston bookshop, Firmin struggles to fight for enough milk to sustain him, and so turns to eating the shredded pages of the ‘Big Book’ that make up the family nest to sustain himself. Quickly and unintentionally, he becomes hooked. Not only do the pages sustain his body, but they also nourish his mind:
I am convinced that these masticated pages furnished the nutritional foundation for – and perhaps even directly caused – what I will with modesty call my unusual mental development. Imagine: the history of the world in four parts, fragments of philosophy, psychoanalysis, linguistics, astronomy, astrology, hundreds of rivers, popular songs, the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita […] thousands of puns, dozens of languages, recipes, dirty jokes, illnesses, childbirths, executions – all this and more I took into my body.
(He’s certainly a verbose vermin.)
If the image of a rat chewing through a bookshop’s wares troubles you, fear not. Before too long, Firmin begins to read between his meals, and is eventually horrified by what he has eaten: “In some cases, where there were no other copies. I have had to wait years to fill the gaps.” Eventually, he leaves the basement to explore the bookstore and all it has to offer.
Firmin is a charming, inventive little novel. It is a light read – a little over 200 pages of fairly large type, interspersed with the occasional illustration – but nevertheless a memorable one. I first read it six or seven years ago, and it has stuck with me ever since. In particular, I was reminded of it when I read (and equally loved) Laline Paull’s The Bees, another novel based around a non-human protagonist.
On the surface, Firmin is humorous and light-hearted, but it does explore some serious issues. Most obvious is gentrification: Firmin has a rat’s-eye view of the oncoming redevelopment of Boston’s Scollay Square which threatens his bookshop and, by extension, everything he knows. By extension, this is a story about class, prejudice, and education. A rat is not expected to be intelligent and, if by miracle he is able to educate himself, there will be no opportunities for him to expand his horizons and benefit from what he has learned. A rat is supposed to be expendable, forgettable – not to mention dirty and repulsive. We aren’t meant to hear the rat’s side of the story but, thanks to Savage’s wonderful imagination, we can.
Ruminate on that.