Rat Man of Paris
The Rat Man of the title of Paul West’s novel has spent many years as an eccentric wandering the boulevards of Paris exposing a rat to passersby. Often the rat is alive, sometimes fake, and sometimes Poulsifer (the Rat Man) uses his dead mother’s fox fur. He and Madame R., his stepmother, were the only survivors of the World War II massacre of their village in west central France by the occupying German army. A dollhouse and his mother’s fox fur are the only possessions which Rat Man retains from the destruction of the village. He houses his current rat in the former, in his small, dilapidated room on the Street of the Cat Who Fishes. Making his living at odd jobs and with the money which the audience of his act on the boulevard gives him, Rat Man is inviting, as it were, a meaningful destiny to occur in his life, and as bait he offers the shocking bits and pieces of his history as a refugee, the victim of inhuman forces which robbed him of the origin embodied in his parents and of the social tradition embodied by his village. He preserves the symbols of such a background—the dollhouse and fox fur, and the memories of the massacre itself, including newspaper clippings of the subsequent capture and trial of some of the German soldiers responsible for it—but these symbols belong only to his feeling of being disconnected, not to an external system of value such as civilization itself, and are thereby merely vividly poetic, intensely personal. He offers these symbolic fragments as a kind of sinister joke to the human community that surrounds rather than includes him, in much the same way that he once presented to others the human bones salvaged from the warplanes which he helped dredge up from the waters where they had gone down.
This eccentric exhibitionist is the Rat Man whom Sharli Bandol meets one day while she is eating at a sidewalk café. She is a young high school teacher, and she is too tired at the time to be either amused or repelled by Rat Man’s antics. She simply accepts him. She is interested, curious, and soon they strike up an acquaintance that leads to an affair before long. They take to parking off the road at the end of the runway at Orly airport and watching the jets land. They picnic there, and Sharli pieces together the imaginings of Poussif (her diminutive for Rat Man’s real name). He dreams of going to a sunny climate far away; he is, in fact, good with living things—not only the rats and spiders in his dollhouse but also the small tree in Sharli’s patio. If the objects he comes in contact with are like toys to him, he can still lavish much care on them.
Sharli finds that Poussif is still in many ways a baby and that he brings out the motherliness in her. She is eager to bring him up, to help him make a more organic and systematic connection with the world than the tenuous one he maintains with his playacting and his unpredictable imagination. He begins to spend much of his time in her apartment, and she gets him to tell her class about his life as the Rat Man. To an extent, Poussif is one of her students himself; she must even guide him in sex, to which he brings the diffidence of a preoccupied adult and the energy of a teenager. She is patient, if sometimes frustrated, regarding his elusive personality, for though he is close to her, and there is empathy between them, he is also far away in his own world. He is, in short, a displaced person whose identity consists in not having one, whose trust remains as slippery as it is naïve.
Besides Sharli, the second event that occurs to Poussif by way of drawing together the fragments of his character is the capture of Klaus Barbie, the Nazi “Butcher of Lyon,” in South America and his subsequent imprisonment in France. In Poussif’s mind, Barbie is the man responsible for the village massacre that Poussif escaped, and Rat Man is so...
(The entire section is 1574 words.)