The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Etienne Poulsifer

Etienne Poulsifer (ay-TYEH[N] pewl-see-FEHR), the eponymous “Rat Man of Paris,” a Parisian boulevardier famous for accosting strangers and flashing, from beneath his coat, a rat (later only a decrepit fox fur that once belonged to his mother). He is an emaciated, haunted figure in his fifties who lives on the meager sum that he extorts from strangers. Orphaned when the inhabitants of his childhood village were exterminated by the Nazis, Rat Man has spent his adulthood trying to forget the war. When he sees in a newspaper that a Nazi war criminal is to return to France and stand trial for his crimes, Rat Man creates elaborate street spectacles to awaken the nation’s conscience. After being shot and convalescing, Rat Man fathers a child and arrives at a new sense of meaning in his existence.

Sharli Bandol

Sharli Bandol (shahr-LEE bahn-DOHL), a grammar school teacher, an attractive woman in her thirties. She meets Rat Man at a café and essentially adopts him. As she comes to love Rat Man, he is also her obsession, someone she wants to civilize and nurture with her love. In many ways, Rat Man appears to be her opposite, yet they are significantly alike in their desperate emotional need to love and be loved. After his injury, she removes Rat Man to Nice, France, where she becomes...

(The entire section is 511 words.)