Me Cheeta, the autobiography by Cheeta, with James Lever

I finished this book on the train from Hanover to Amersfoort and  found it brilliantly inventive and amusing. It’s the autobiography of Tarzan’s famous co-star, the world’s oldest chimpanzee. From his arrival in 1930s Hollywood, where he enjoys “martini-sharpened conversations with William Faulkner”, to his twilight years painting landscapes, Cheeta always has a story to tell. He covers all the Hollywood excesses you’ve ever heard of and gives the lowdown on the Tarzan films. (As I always suspected, Jane was a right pain.) Chapter Eight is a masterpiece.

But what raises it above a very clever and funny satirical skit is that Cheeta is aware that Hollywood really is a dream factory. It does reflect and shape our dreams and emotions. Moreover, Cheeta loves Johnny Weissmuller completely and unrequitedly. He adores this alpha male, who is kind to children and animals and is too unsophisticated for Hollywood and too wooden an actor for any other role. That reminded me that I loved Tarzan too when I first saw the films many years ago, and – yes – I dreamt of living in a tree house and swinging through the jungle. It makes perfect sense when you’re 10 – and still sounds rather attractive when you’re considerably older. As Cheeta says about humans’ attitude to civilisation, “You only ever use the word with a pair of quotation marks like tweezers, so your fingers don’t have to touch it”. So when I found myself in tears at Cheeta’s final meeting with Johnny, perhaps I was also regretting the disappearance of my own dream.

Of course, the autobiography may be unintentional: perhaps an endless number of chimpanzees were given an infinite number of typewriters and this is the result.

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