The character of Etienne Poulsifer is based upon an actual figure who roamed the Paris streets collecting money after exposing and then removing his offending rats from beneath his overcoat. As Paul West has commented in an interview, he learned of this man from friends and then “dreamed on him” for the purposes of his novel. Poulsifer is an original creation, someone whose life seems utterly blasted and hopeless yet one who insists on making some contribution. His dilemma is what that contribution might be.
Poulsifer indulges in bizarre, comically absurd theories and actions (a good example is his method of taking a shower fully clothed in order to do his laundry), and even his crusade against Boche amounts to a doomed commitment when he learns that this is not his Nazi but Klaus Barbie instead. Nevertheless, despite all of his strangeness and confusion, Poulsifer is a profoundly compelling figure and in his way a kind of twentieth century Everyman. Alienated and bruised by history and his personal experience, Poulsifer insists that life must have meaning, that individuals do matter, that one must be committed to something. Sharli characterizes him as “a warning of what a man becomes who lives without tradition, a code, a home,” while Poulsifer describes himself as representing “active meaning, passive form.”
Sharli is also a thoroughly sympathetic creation. Her acceptance of Poulsifer is initially confusing, even improbable; as...
(The entire section is 530 words.)