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 her character develops, however, the logic of their relationship emerges. She constantly questions the wisdom of tying her life to that of Poulsifer and often despairs of his obsession with death and her seeming inability to civilize him. Yet her determination to love Rat Man, almost in spite of himself, reveals how similar to him she is in various ways. She, too, wants life, a life with meaning and dignity, and with Poulsifer, for the first time, she believes that she has achieved that.
While these are the central characters, West does add a few minor figures who are fascinating in other respects. One of these characters is an obscure Spanish novelist (“Jose-Juan-Jorge Madero-Madeiras-Menendez,” as Sharli calls him), who Poulsifer believes is following him and taking notes on his activities. Sharli follows Rat Man in an attempt to view this novelist, but one never sees him in Rat Man’s company. Like Sharli, the reader concludes that he is one of Rat Man’s apparitions, a projection of his desired notoriety. At one point, however, during Rat Man’s sojourn in Nice, the narrator shifts the scene to present an actual Spanish novelist beginning and then abandoning a work about Rat Man.
Boche is another significant figure, though the reader learns very little about him except through Poulsifer’s tortured, obsessive ruminations. For Poulsifer, he is a vicious criminal who must atone for the suffering he has inflicted on so many, but as the novel progresses, Poulsifer’s view of Boche changes to one of “a certain sympathy. . . [for] the man’s pain speaks to the pain in Rat Man....” When he inadvertently thinks of the man as Klaus Barbie, Rat Man is freed of his burden: “It doesn’t hurt, it can’t, it won’t.”
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...
(The entire section is 1,041 words.)