:: Article

I smell a rat

By Declan Tan.

Ratmen, Steve Ely, Blackheath Books 2012

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations. Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow.

– Michael Shermer, ‘The Believing Brain’

Spinoza’s conjecture, that belief comes naturally, even quickly, while skepticism and disbelief are slow and laborious processes that require enquiry and the neurological effort of rejection, is one that otherwise-poet Steve Ely explores here with lasting effect, in this his first novel. Taking this thesis to a logical, if somewhat outlandish conclusion, we’re swept along from rejection to belief through to extremism, and the fragility of identity that that implies.

We are presented with the student and the teacher, known only as ‘the man’ and ‘the boy’, as the latter is apprenticed in the ways of rat extermination, introduced, on the job, in a client’s garden suspected of infestation. As they stalk the garden and analyse the shed, we too are schooled in what it takes to be an efficient hunter of rodents; a respect for the enemy, knowledge of its behaviour, and an instinct to destroy. To the man, rat hunting is not just an occupation; it is not the mere clearing of unwanted vermin, going from one job to the next without direction, without purpose; it is, in fact, with sinister consequences, just the opposite.

Through the boy we come to understand how the man himself must have arrived at the conclusions we are later privy to; it seems the cyclical nature of such conditioning. Positioned to peer just over the boy’s shoulder, we track his thoughts and progression, we watch his gradual inculcation at the hands of his elder; wisdom, as to the “eternal war” against rats, is parsed out and gobbled up by the boy eager to impress, eager to learn. The central proposition is that rats are an evil and other force upon the earth, and that they have somehow come to control mankind, to bring about its end.

Gradually we learn a little of the boy’s background. He is of a broken home, son to a sometimes-abusive father and imprisoned mother, sibling to recidivist brothers. Yet he excelled in school, when he attended. He has since left education prematurely behind, humiliated, and felt to be cast ever further out by patronising teachers (who fix competitions to grant him an iPod), whilst alienated by his “privileged” peers.

These are, perhaps, the first of many inchoate elements, personal or emotional or psychological, that slot in to the totality of any such indoctrination. For the boy’s journey, in all its intricacy of circumstances and conditions, reasoning and assumption, subsumes that aforementioned slow, laborious process of questioning, to leave in its wake the void, and from it the need for a new belief to take hold; namely, to enter into what the man calls this “holy war” against the rat. And, in Ely’s controlled and deceptively simple prose, this is a process wholly convincing in execution. All it takes, it seems, is a little ignorance, a little desperation, and a lot of imagination.

Amongst a sodden wasteland of slurry and hotel car parks and Dick Turpin pubs, this man and boy are forever on the job, rarely at home, scarcely eating or drinking, or doing anything other than killing rats, or on their way to kill rats, or sitting in a van talking about what it means to kill rats. We learn little of their lives outside this function that defines their identities, for outside of it there is nothingness, only a world that has wholly rejected them.

Early on, the boy confronts the man’s convictions on this supposedly evil rat mind; he, quite rightly, cannot accept this belief that the rat is intent on wiping out the human race, and continually calls into question their annihilation. If anything, it makes his later conversion even stronger, and more powerful in its conviction. They incessantly debate the validity of the man’s claims that:

“Rats don’t get to survive. They get to be exterminated. All of them – big ones, little ones, baby ones, unborn ones, pregnant ones. That’s it. There’s no compassion for rats. One thing’s for certain; they don’t have any for us.”

And yet there is something separate in the boy’s understanding, something personal, a hint at the uncanny in his move from fear of his newfound enemy, to hatred. He begins to feel a sickness at the sight of a rat, one that is later sublimated toward their extermination, his duty. At first, he cannot stop himself from vomiting. He is repulsed at the sight of them. Later, he realises, rats are like men, to the point where, he is told, “you don’t have to think like a rat to understand a rat. You have to think like a human…Because the thing about rats is, they’re just like us – their survival instinct, their ability to adapt to new environments and exploit new resources, their ruthlessness, ferocity, endurance, their creative desperation.”

Günter Grass, quoted in the epigraph, is, amongst others, debated at length and with lucidity. The man manages too to turn these ideas on their heads. The boy’s fear develops from the first instance to an intellectual rationalisation, then to pleasure in their killing, until finally it is only a sense of obligation that propels him toward rat hunting. Ely develops fully a complex mesh of conditions and prior beliefs that open the boy up to his new teaching.

At his first opportunity to deliver the deathblow with his rat stick, the boy jumps back in fear, and the rat escapes. His ability and willingness to learn the trade is henceforth repeatedly brought into question, and he quickly becomes desperate to prove otherwise, either to himself, or to his master. He appears to be in need of this acceptance, so he must internalise this world view and reject the rat’s familiarity, both as an animal, and as a living being. While still in his moderate phase – doing the killing without particularly believing in any grand purpose – the boy soon begins to “opt into that stuff himself,” yet still takes issue with its implications, and relishes the continuous battle of wits between student and master, conversations which serve as the outlet for Ely’s scrutiny. Here we are suggested many possibilities, or interpretations, one of which is explicitly presented; that the man is a representation of the kind of ideologues, such as Hitler and Himmler (both of whom are brought up periodically), that truly believe in the righteousness of their exterminations. These juxtapositions, of the man’s dogmatism alongside discussions of Nazism, are particularly forthcoming:

The boy grinned. The man was falling into his trap. “But the Nazis didn’t kill the Jews for fun. They believed that the Jews were racially inferior, the sworn nemesis of the Aryan race, human vermin, worthy only of destruction. Whether you agree with that or not is completely irrelevant for the purposes of my argument. The Nazis resolved to exterminate Jews in order to remove a perceived threat and so that the Aryan race could survive and prosper. For a reason, not for ‘fun’. It is not the likes of me, people who take a little pleasure in our rat control work, for God’s sake, who are like Nazis – it’s you, with your obsessive, conspiratorial mind hell-bent on ratocide.”

The open metaphor of rats is, surely, to be taken as any potential target of extremism, an animal that, here, has been attributed the intention to do harm, and a species that will be, if not stopped, the downfall of civilisation; of course, replace rats with infidels, heathens, gentiles or Jews, and we’re offered an ever broader range of the significance of such an odious conviction, for “The screaming of a rat is the most human sound in the world,” yet this must be brushed aside. The man’s otherwise racist views seem to put this in perspective; he debates whether there is a conspiracy between the rats and “Pakis” and “pikeys” to infiltrate human society, and though at first the boy rejects such prejudices, he ultimately ignores them, and perhaps, thereby, tacitly endorses them. The question remains of whether ideology itself breeds the real perpetrator of such damaging ideas, to bleed from them any kind of compassion, or serviceable form of humanity, or if it is pushed on by something extra. And it seems, it is not so much the idea alone that rats are evil, but the mythology and religion based on this conjecture that brings about the danger, and one that leads to an act of terrorism.

Factor in the boy’s personal and emotional neediness, and his newfound father figure, strict and seemingly calculated with his affection, it seems the boy’s desire is filled to the point of providing for his life a purpose, an avenue for acceptance that can only be complete with full internalisation of this doctrine, for it is also the man’s sense of duty that draws the boy’s intellectual attention. At first where he feels he can win over his teacher through rationality and reason, he must eventually accept that leap of faith.

It is a testament to the steady pacing and control of Ely’s prose that we at first start out on the side of rats – set against their surely psychopathic exterminator – to then become somewhat intrigued by his assuredness in this other reality, to then finally fall back into the grey areas that the boy once occupied with his rationalisations and daydreaming. Of course, it is too late for him by then, and it will take some considerable effort to rid him of his belief.

Though the man is obviously fanatical from the outset, admonishing customers and rat lovers (aiders and abettors) for expressing any sympathy for the fate of their unwanted rats, he supports his claims – at first paranoid, admittedly – with instances and evidence that, to the boy, become increasingly plausible. If Ratmen is about extremism, then it is also about man’s capacity for ignorance, self-delusion, and susceptibility to belief itself, finding patterns, seeking subsequent explanations, and holding them to be true. And if, after enquiry and skepticism, a belief takes hold, then it will be one all the more difficult to shake off.

Declan Tan is a borderline freelance journalist. He has also published minor amounts of fiction and poetry.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 12th, 2013.