True originality is a rare thing for us humans. To come up with an idea that is unlike anything anyone else has thought. Of course you can never know if anyone else has had an idea previous to you. However, I think Samuel Fisher comes pretty close to something extraordinary and unique with The Chameleon. It is not like anything I have read before, which is ironic since the book also contains every book that has or will be written. I was so fascinated I had to give this book my first five star-review on this blog!
Our protagonist is the sentient written word. He can take the form of any written word; vellum manuscript, erotica, hardback classics, a shopping list, he can manifest as whatever form of writing he chooses. But although he can deliberately become any form of literature, he is not very mobile and depends on others for manifestation. That being said his existence is not ubiquitous; he needs a person to pick him up on the bus, to put him on their bookshelves or sell him in a bookstore. Through his numerous owners he observes human life, and he has been doing this for 800 years now. He has been the sole companion of an anchoress and late night reading material of Nathan Rothschild. Time and place is a bit blurry for our book; he is simultaneously everywhere and ‘everywhen’. And so the plot of the book is not told in a chronological order. Which makes perfect sense, story-telling is after all eternal. I can, hand on my hart, say that I have never encountered a point of view character like this previously.
When we meet the protagonist he has spent the last 60 years in the possession of Roger. Although our book has belonged to a number of extraordinary persons over the years, it is the moderately intelligent and pretty unassuming Roger that has become his great love. We first meet Roger on his death bed as an old man, but the book also presents us to Roger as a horny teenager, a cold-war spy and as a husband and parent. The book’s love for Roger is a rather sad affair – Roger never notices him, and so our book’s love can never be returned. But his affection for this ordinary man is so great that he has decided tell Roger’s life story, even though writing, in stead of being writing, seems a heinous action to our protagonist.
One thing I have never considered is the horrors of the life of a book. Although the book can take many forms, he is not immortal and he graphically describes his nightmare deaths. He is terrified of taking the wrong form and being thrown into a dustbin and slowly, painfully rot away. Or being burned alive, unable to defend himself and unable to scream his terror. So vivid is his horror, I will never again be able to use a newspaper as kindling again in my life! All my thoughts will be for that poor life-form dying horribly, alone and unmourned.
The other significant character is of course Rogers. In some ways Roger is a difficult character to like. He constantly seems to make choices (about his work amongst other things) that benefit himself and not his family. But then again, it is clear that Roger’s mistakes are not done out of cruelty, only thoughtlessness. Many of his life-choices come about through lack of consideration. He becomes a spy because it seems exiting and he becomes a father because he forgets condoms. The main plot of the book is how the sweet teenager became the disappointed and sad man dying in his bed with his daughter and granddaughter in attendance. What happened to Roger? What does the book see in him?
Fisher explores so many possible themes in this short book that I am surprised he managed to cram it all in. He writes about living with how our actions have hurt others, about how literature can keep the dead alive in our memories, about how we humans use literature for all kinds of purposes, about how memory is a story we tell ourselves and about how each person has his or her own story of an event. The characters often tell slightly skewed tales of their lives. But then again, what is a true story, really?
Taken in its entirety, the story is a lie. But the constituent parts, the details that are strung together to make up the whole, are cannablised from the actual exprerience of his life, stripped of their context and reassembled. It’s these potted details that give it a ring of truth.
You can tell that this little story has been written by a true book lover, for the benefit for other book lovers. Every chapter is littered with literary references, from poems to classic novels. It is masterfully done! Fisher has managed to do this without distracting readers from the spy plot or love story. I cannot gush enough about this book! The unusual protagonist, the carefully drawn characters – this is a book I will keep rereading it for a long time!