Books of the year 2011: Craig Raine

Me Cheeta: the Autobiography - James Lever

Me Cheeta: the Autobiography (Fourth Estate, £7.99) by James Lever was published in 2009 and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, won that year by Hilary Mantel for Wolf Hall. Credulously, foolishly, I read Wolf Hall when I should have been reading Me Cheeta, which is a work of genius. Ever since I finished it this year, I have been urging it on anyone who will listen. It is relentlessly funny, bracingly cynical, written with the brio of a Nabokov - and in its final pages straightforwardly heartbreaking. When Cheeta is reunited briefly with the love of his life, Johnny Weissmuller, the old actor is close to the end: "in the folds of his throat was a little plastic valve", but, joy, "I was all over the place, like birdsong". This is a perfect novel. It belongs on the shelf next to Pnin, another great work of imbricated comedy and pathos.

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