West, Paul (1993), Rat Man of Paris, Tusk/Overlook
Paul West is one of the least well known of major American postmodern novelists. Born in 1930, and still at it, West has written an incredible amount of fiction, nonfiction and poetry, none of which I noticed until Coetzee’s Elizabeth Costello. And I don’t seem to be alone in that. A quick jstor search for mentions of this novel, which, after all, is one of West’s most well known books, came up almost empty. Whenever he is mentioned, the tone is reverent and adulating, but the dearth of academical studies on West appears to me to be quite symptomatic of the shroud of oblivion that has sunken over Paul West’s vast literary endeavors. And, as so very often, this is completely and totally undeserved. Rat Man of Paris, originally published in 1986, is my first West novel and it’s an extraordinary literary success. To say it’s a well-written novel would be an unfair understatement, it’s a book that thrives on style, without ever being offputtingly obvious about it. At the same time, Rat Man of Paris is a moving and disturbing novel about a survivor of the horrors of the Second World War, and a book that is intelligent enough not to get lost in feigned gestures of witnessing and authenticity. West writes extremely well about the vagaries of an unbalanced mind trying to come to terms with a horrendous past and a confusing present. In this endeavor, West’s protagonist mirrors the European society he lives in, a society that is also still trying to come to terms with the terrible events of 20th century’s murderous first half. In order to make this work, West presents numerous tropes of talk, speech and memory, seamlessly integrated into a quick-moving (and frequently extraordinarily funny) narrative that contains sex, attempted murder and Nazi regalia. Paul West’s Rat Man of Paris may not be for everyone, but I can’t but recommend this powerful, very well written work of art. It’s a quick enough read which invites numerous re-reads, a book by a writer who, from the evidence of this, deserves to be much more famous than he is now.
The book’s maudlin protagonist is Etienne Poulsifer, roughly middle-aged, who wanders the cobbled streets of Paris shocking tourists for a living. He has a whole act, he’s the titular Rat Man of Paris, it’s his brand and has become his identity. There are vast variations in the way Poulsifer (or Poussif, in short) performs his act, although its basic rules stay the same: it is a highly formalized demonstration. He sidles up to a group of tourists, in a café or elsewhere, steps up closely and then reveals an object, a rat usually. Sometimes, especially as the novel’s events develop, he exchanges the rat for something else, a fox fur, for example. The means of presentation often change, but they always revolve around the moment of shock. Shock, that is, that is then tempered by recognition and humor. I’m dwelling on this a bit because it’s central to the way West structures his book. He uses the Rat Man’s act as a miniature model of themes and structures central to the rest of the book. Poussif doesn’t always actually shock people on the street. When the book opens, he is famous enough that people know that they are supposed to be shocked. He’s going through the motions of shocking people, in a very elaborate manner. And a formally strict one: we are told that Poussif has a very precise idea of how his act should be performed. The steps involved have to be followed exactly, and any changes are deliberated heavily and slowly. When you see the Rat Man of Paris, you know what to expect. There is certainly, even from those who know him well, a kind of pleasant frisson, encountering the sudden display of rat, but on the whole it’s a grotesque of sorts, an entertainment, removed from historical context or more conventional frames of reference. It’s an oddity, unexplained and unexplainable. A rat: c’est tout. Yet that rat, and his presentation of it, is not a job, it’s an integral part of his identity. This is what the book opens with, Poulsifer and his act. And as we read on, his future and his past start to unfold before us.
His future, that’s his relationship with a woman called Sharli, a geography teacher who gets involved with Poussif for somewhat unclear reasons.
Something in him appeals to her. [...] Affectopath, she sometimes calls herself; she hungers for affection, hungers to give it, and he has sensed this, as well as the tang and glint of her.
It is not entirely plausible that this would be enough to get involved with a freak like Etienne Poulsifer, but the book doesn’t care whether we think it’s believable. She falls in love with him, and their relationship proves sturdy enough, surviving several of Poussif’s manic episodes, his rapidly disintegrating mental sanity, a gun shot and slowly transforms into something even more durable and complex. We don’t get a lot of characterization as far as Sharli is concerned; from a certain point on, she’s just present, offering comfort and lodgings to the Rat Man. On the other hand, Poulsifer isn’t drawn in great detail either. We know him through his acts, through the things he says and the manner in which he behaves: towards other people, towards his own past, and with his own person. There are many things about this book that show the careful reader what an extraordinary master Paul West is, but one of the most obvious ones is the way he presents his characters through their actions. There are a few thoughts now and then, but they are, at best, thoughts in preparation of deeds, or thoughts functioning as actions. People are not described as much as they are displayed by the things they do. West’s characters are like the Rat Man’s rats, and his art as a novelist is the art
[h]ow to expose the snout, how to make it seem to move, how to tuck it out of sight and have to wrestle with it under one or two layers of clothing.
Exposing the rat does not, as we remember, mean describing the rat, it’s showing it in an elaborate way. In writing novels, arguably. description does not directly correspond to ‘showing’. West’s characterization through action, though, does. This is not new, by all means, nor is it rare. What is, however, is the fact that West manages to combine what in many writers engenders a simpler style, with an almost feverish language. West changes rhythms like trains, from sentences front-loaded with participial constructions, to longer, more supple sentences and truly simple short phrases. Sentences can stiffen or loosen up within a single paragraph, becoming more or less formal, for example. None of this ever seems chaotic, which is also why none of this happens at the expense of readability. West is in control of his style which marries narrative economy with syntactical gluttony.
I should admit at this point that my enthusiasm for West may stem from the fact that this is the first book I read of his, but that does not make his achievement less of an achievement. Thus, while it may be sensible to subtract some hyperbole from what I say, the core point, West’s fundamental excellence, should remain untouched. And while style and literary finesse is the most obvious sign of that excellence, his treatment of the dark subject at the heart of the book is another, arguably more important one. The book’s cover in my edition, a collage by Ellen Weinstein, shows part of a photograph of the infamous Gestapo officer Klaus Barbie, ‘the Butcher of Lyon’. The novel’s time-frame falls straight into the period when Barbie was incarcerated after having been extradited to France from Bolivia in 1984; Rat Man of Paris was published just before Barbie’s trial began in 1987. In the novel, it’s Barbie’s face in the Parisian newspapers that awakens Poulsifer’s madness. As it turns out, he is a survivor of a village massacre by German troops in WWII, a catastrophe that has shaped his whole adult life. He seems to have managed, however, to sublimate the fears, anger and the horrific memories; there’s no doubt that the formal exigencies of his rat act helped him to achieve this. If at all, he remembers his past empty in “dribs, drabs”. He has, one might say, struck an uneasy détente with his past, forgetting just enough to stay reasonably sane. When the pictures of Barbie turn up in the newspapers, memories rush back at him. Although Barbie was probably not present at the village massacre (the book isn’t completely clear on this), seeing this SS-Hauptsturmführer seems to force him to remember his childhood trauma, however spottily. He remembers all the central SS officers present at the massacre, except for the commanding officer, who forms a hollow, unnamed hole at the heart of his memories.
This hole Poussif fills with the images of Klaus Barbie. Entering a downward spiral of rage and obsession, he starts dressing in a Nazi uniform as part of his old act. He never abandons his formal rules, doing everything according to his own code, which, as I mentioned, even includes rules for how to adapt and change his act. Thus his act constantly evolves, getting stranger and stranger, and losing the element of shock, becoming more historically charged. At the same time, he becomes more famous by the day, plastering Paris with posters advertising his act and accusing Barbie of heinous crimes he committed and of many he did not commit, maintaining that guilt of collectively committed crimes of such magnitude falls on each individual. Thus, he enlists a variety of media to tell his story. Additionally, he is followed around by a mysterious Spanish novelist, intent on telling the Rat Man’s story. There is, in the way West portrays Poussif’s changing acts, a very clear comment on the empty, ritualistic nature of public remembrances today. Just as people gather patiently around the uniform-clad Poussif to enjoy his droll act for the few minutes that it takes, thus we also gather around our places of remembrance for the rituals of remembering. Poussif doesn’t aim for entertainment anymore. He rages against the conventional limits of street entertainment, attempting to actually shock people, incite them to action against Barbie and all the other nameless and faceless Nazis he represents. West is not actually trying to provide testimony, or to fake it. On the other hand, he does not go down the road of books like John Boyne’s unbearably sanitized Boy in the Striped Pajamas (cf. my review of that book) either. Of course, individual testimony matters. Of course accuracy matters. However, in Rat Man of Paris, we also see the need for public remembrance, public outrage, a public sense of history. Paul West takes on a difficult territory and he doesn’t cut corners. He knows the limits that separate the things he can say about history and those he can’t. Plus. there is almost no gore, no violent, shocking imagery in his book; instead, his readers are upset finding that someone has scrawled “Forget” on a sign that originally said “Remember”. Rat Man of Paris is an attempt to sort out issues of guilt and memory in a masterful way.
By displaying such care and precision in matters of history, Paul West’s harrowing little novel is an example of a postmodern novel powered by an intelligent conscience as well as style. Of course, if we look at the means employed by West, we can immediately see that he makes use of ye olde postmodern toolbox. We encounter, for example, all kinds of narrative media in the book. Television interview, newspaper articles, we find reporters, Poussif himself, and a mysterious novelist, all helping to reflect and mirror Poulsifer’s rage and indignation. The book offers to its readers a protagonist who enlists a whole city as a canvas on which to tell his story of 20th century horrors. All this is naturally part of a toolbox which has been used by all kinds of writers far inferior to West. The most egregious case is probably Paul Auster, who has reaped success for presenting a diluted, anodyne version of powerful novelists like Paul West. In West’s work, we are always aware of the weight of words and actions; in it, playacting is more than just a smart literary version of Find The Lady. Acting is a reflection of everyday acts, and is rooted in the quotidian. On every page of Rat Man of Paris, a deep affection shines through, for his characters and the possibilities inherent in them and in their language. Paul West is a humane writer, an intelligent writer and a deeply gifted stylist. Read this book.