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Book Review : Tale of History, Atrocity That Disappears in a Fog

February 12, 1986|RICHARD EDER | Times Book Critic

Rat Man of Paris by Paul West (Doubleday: $15.95)

Etienne Poulsifer is one of two survivors from a French village destroyed by the Germans as a reprisal during the Occupation. The villagers were locked into the church, which was then burned down; 643 died.

Paul West has modeled this atrocity upon a real event: The German extermination of Oradour. And he has joined it to another bit of history. At the end of the war, the boulevards of Paris were haunted for a while by a strange, gaunt man who would approach people and suddenly thrust at them a rat he carried buttoned up in his overcoat. Paris' Rat Man was a minor celebrity, a grotesque who seemed to suit the shell-shocked, acrid spirit of the times.

West, a writer of distinction and originality, makes Poulsifer, the survivor, and the penitential rodent-flasher into a single figure in his somber but alluring fable, "Rat Man of Paris."

Absolute horror of the Auschwitz and Oradour kind is implacably a part of our world, just as Mozart and cheeseburgers are. Yet we think of the former as all but extra-planetary.

Survivor Is Appealing

It is a feat of serious imagination, therefore, for West to treat his survivor as a transplant.

His Poulsifer is an innocent--appealing, even comical, and on a mission he barely understands. He has, in fact, almost buried his memories of the baker's oven with two cremated children inside it, a shed full of machine-gunned sheep, and the burning church where his parents died.

He lives, a solitary, in a garret. He makes no concerted effort for himself. He bathes with his clothes on so they will get a wash. When his sheets are impossibly black, he throws them out the window hoping that the police will arrest and launder them.

When the book opens, his glory days as a Rat Man are over. The novelty is over, and he has gone stale on it. In truth, he had rarely, if ever, used a real live rat. Sometimes it was a dead one, or a toy that he carried under his coat.

Most often, though, it was the wizened head of a fox fur. It came from his village. What Parisians took for a rat's head, a bit of free-form weirdness, was a dead, accusing face from a terrible past.

Lover Tries to Help

Poulsifer has recently taken up with Sharli, a warm-hearted, sensible schoolteacher who feeds him, keeps him in clothes, takes him on outings, makes love to him and, in general, tries to bring him up into life.

They have long discussions. When they go to their favorite picnic spot at the end of the airport runway, he wonders why there is a sign warning the pilots against straying deer, but none warning the deer.

Sharli observes that in their everyday life he has "a remorseless attention to detail coupled with his disdain for general principles."

He sees no difference between a sheep and a great wad of white blotting paper. A broom to him is an object that has just had a haircut. One day, though, he sees in a newspaper an account of a Nazi war criminal who has been found in Latin America and is being brought for trial to France; a Mengele or a Barbie. He thinks he recognizes the face, and his hazy cloud leaves him.

He parades around Paris with blowups of the photograph.

He plasters the walls with pictures. He dresses himself up to resemble the man. He becomes a remorseless expounder of the past he had put aside.

He also becomes a celebrity. He is interviewed and followed around by reporters. His celebrity increases when somebody mysteriously shoots him. The bullet passes through his cheeks--fortunately, he was yawning at the time--and does only minor damage. But it makes a major alteration in him.

He gives up his campaign and slides into a kind of amiable passivity. Sharli has his baby, and he takes absent-minded care of it, lost in daydreams and a wool-gathering contentment. It is an inconclusive sort of tapering off. Up until the shooting, West's fable is compassionate and chilling. His Poulsifer, victim and avenger, has a questioning and original humanity. And then it all fogs over.

Poulsifer disappears in tiny sensations and impenetrable associations. He is lost to us, and we are not sure which way his author intended him to go.

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