Bom, or Bem, the narrator, who is progressing laboriously through mud. He characterizes his breathing as panting; his thoughts are fragments that repeat throughout the narrative. He carries a sack whose position he constantly shifts, with a cord that he periodically loosens as he reaches in the sack for a tin of food. He also scrounges for a can opener. The narrator presents his progress, which he describes as covering long stretches of time, in relation to Pim. There are three parts to the narrative: before Pim, with Pim, and after Pim. In the first part, the narrator broods over fitful, fleeting memories, such as prayer with his mother on a veranda and a pastoral stroll with a girl and a dog in April or May. In the second part, Bom finds and torments Pim. The narrator depicts himself and Pim as two little old men clinging, or glued, together in the mire. It becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between them. In the third and final part, having been abandoned by Pim, Bom pessimistically speculates that life is a closed system, a circular route involving a tormentor who seeks and finds a victim, who eventually flees to search out a victim of his own while the tormentor endures victimization by some other traveler. The narrator is awaiting his own tormentor, whom he calls Bom.
Pim, the narrator’s victim, who may be his alter ego; at times, their identities seem to fuse. The narrator claims that he is taller than Pim, which he attributes to seniority. When he torments Pim, Pim sings a tune to which the narrator cannot make out the words. Pim has a wristwatch that the narrator pulls to his own ear, because the ticking keeps him company. Pim eats nothing, though the narrator offers him food from his sack, and Bom imagines that Pim derives nourishment from the mud by osmosis. The narrator calls Pim a bad student and himself a bad teacher.
Krim, or Kram, a scribe who is a witness to the incessant “dance” of victim and tormentor. Krim is aloof, keeping record. He bends over the narrator with a lamp. He may, in fact, be a projection of the narrator, representing his self-conscious awareness.