Rat Man of Paris by Paul West

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Rat Man of Paris Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

While there are indeed various events and activities in the novel, most of the action takes place in the protagonist’s wandering mind. Etienne Poulsifer is known to most as the “Rat Man of Paris” for his habit of accosting strangers on the street and revealing a live rat (later rubber, wooden, or dead ones and finally a fox fur) hidden under his coat. Almost invariably, the startled or appalled passersby proffer money to dismiss Rat Man, who regards his actions as rituals for “tweaking the race. Helping it evolve.”

On one of his excursions, he meets Sharli Bandol, who is not frightened by his gesture and who invites him to her apartment for a meal. The two are immediately attracted to each other (though Rat Man, now in his sixties, disheveled and stoop-shouldered, is anything but physically attractive) out of their mutual desire to give and receive affection. Their favorite pastime is to park on the runway approach at a nearby airport as the planes roar overhead and discuss anything and everything.

In his mental wanderings, Rat Man takes the reader back to the central events of his life—the Nazi occupation and near-total extermination of his village. While his parents are burned alive, the young Poulsifer hides under floorboards and is later reluctantly adopted by a fellow survivor, Madame R. On the surface, Rat Man appears to be a zombie as a result of these experiences, and often he feels only barely alive, yet he strives continually in his eccentric way to live a life of meaning, a life that matters if for no other reason than to glorify existence itself.

When he learns that a former SS officer has been expelled from Peru and will arrive in France, he convinces himself that this is one of the officers (Boche) responsible for the extermination of his villagers. Rat Man now has a purpose and compulsively sets out to make an impact on the situation. Burning holes in photocopies of the Nazi’s face and then pushing a pram with his fox fur wrapped in a blanket, wearing a swastika armband, dressing in a faded gray suit and trailing balloons painted with a skull, Rat Man ambles day and night through the Paris streets acting as the nation’s...

(The entire section is 563 words.)