Alfred Hoffman is an aimless, lonely old Jew who has recently landed the job of exterminating the rats at a Montreal hotel scheduled for renovation. As we see him go about his tasks, we slowly realize that this kind man has opened up the deserted hotel to the local homeless population, including a number of men and women who will change his life. It’s a perfect premise to introduce a whole cast of intriguing eccentricities of all stripes, and that’s exactly what Boyarsky does. In this respect, the novel is as compassionate as its protagonist, never judging, but presenting with sober dignity these characters whose lives have taken perhaps more than one bad turn.
Where the novel goes wrong is…well, everywhere else. It’s a short book, yet it’s filled with repetition, and thus ends up feeling drawn out. Alfred is endlessly whiney, repeating the same trite, self-deprecating woes, and any sympathy he might accrue is quickly crushed under the weight of his litany of petty misery.
Much in the same way that Alfred, the most complex character in the book, is perhaps summed up too easily – only his courageous heart and unfailing empathy toward others save him from cliché – the rest of the cast ends up being types defined by one or two broad traits rather than living people. This contributes to one of the book’s greatest weaknesses: its reliance on sentiment. It’s hard to generate real emotion without fully realized characters, so instead Boyarsky attacks readers with a barrage of weepy violins, to the point that it almost becomes unintentionally funny.
Some of the most blatantly sentimental moments occur in the few flashback chapters. To make matters worse, these are also largely tangential to the story being told, gratuitous attempts to win sympathy with the well-worn tropes of postwar immigrant travails, contributing almost nothing to the story at hand – until the conclusion, a part of the book that left a very bad taste in this reviewer’s mouth. Ultimately, the book declares that Montreal is not a good place for Jews; it can’t be “home.” Only Israel, the point is made, can be home to Jews. And even in Israel, there’s the danger of the Palestinians’ proximity, a threat that is underlined with an example of the violence and strife in the Middle East. The ending is also much too abrupt. Had the author taken the time to fully imagine the final scenes, which in sharp contrast with the rest of the book are very sketchy, perhaps a more nuanced conclusion would have emerged.
There’s a tangible trajectory from the deft opening to the clumsy conclusion. As chapters follow each other, the quality declines and the text becomes increasingly laden with stiff, long-winded, artificial dialogue. The situation of the homeless people at the hotel becomes ever more unlikely and unbelievable. Subplots resolve much too conveniently, and the text’s sympathies shift from people in general to Jews only.
The Ratcatcher comes to reject the diversity it initially embraces- symbolized most strongly by the object of Alfred’s romantic attention shifting from a Gentile to a Jew – acquiring instead an overtly conservative agenda that values fundamentalism, traditional marriage, and procreation at any cost. mRb