It’s not surprising, really, that after living in America for two decades Peter Carey should turn his pen to it. Having lived in the US twice myself, I well understand the fascination of trying to understand that large and paradoxical country. In Parrot and Olivier in America, then, Carey sets out to explore America through the eyes of two men from early nineteenth century Europe: Olivier Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a French aristocrat whose parents had barely survived the French Revolution, and John ‘Parrot’ Larrit, a poor Englishman who had been brought to France as a boy by another French aristocrat.
Olivier was born in 1805, the same year that French writer and historian Alexis de Tocqueville was born. This is not a coincidence as the novel is Carey’s loose re-imagining of Tocqueville’s trip to America, with a friend, to study American prisons. Like Tocqueville, Olivier undertakes his trip with the support of the July monarchy, but Oliver’s companion is not an equal. Rather it is Parrot, servant-class and twice Olivier’s age. An unlikely pair, really, but perfect for Carey’s purposes …
… which are to pry into, poke at, and peer under that great American experiment, Democracy. Through having two protagonists of such diverse backgrounds and perspectives, Carey is able to explore the issues from different angles, that of master and servant. And through choosing the picaresque as his form (or style), he is able to do so without being ponderous. In other words, the tone is comic, as befits a picaresque novel, and the narrative comprises a series of adventures in which our “heroes”, Parrot and Olivier, meet a range of characters along the way who test them and their ideas. The novel is told in alternating, and well-differentiated, first person voices – starting with Olivier and ending, very even-handedly, with Parrot. It is basically chronological, but there are flashbacks to fill in gaps and frequent overlaps caused by one telling a story followed by the other giving his version.
That’s the nuts and bolts of it, but how does it come across? Well, in a word, exuberantly. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its serious side, but just that it’s rather fun to read. At least, it was for me, though that could be because of my personal history with America. Here, for example, are some of the observations which caught my attention:
On not needing government (Parrot talking with a tradesman):
‘When there is enough for all,’ the nail-maker said, ‘there is no need for government.’
‘But what of the poor.’
‘No man who will work can be poor.’
A little myopic methinks – but an idea that seems to be still entrenched in America?
On the focus on money and trade (Olivier):
No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals, the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money … They had got their hands on a mighty continent from which the least of them could, by dint of some effort, extract unlimited wealth. There being so much to be extracted it scarcely mattered how they were governed, because there is no need to argue when there is plenty for all.
For all, that is, if you are able to work, are not black and not indigenous! Even aristocratic Olivier noticed some of these contradictions.
On the ability to be self-made (Peek, the banker, to Olivier):
‘Experiment,’ he cried, laughing too violently for my taste. ‘There is no experiment. We make this transformation every day. It is called rags-to-riches …’
And on the possibility of art and culture in a democracy (Olivier):
… They [paintings in Philadelphia] made me think that the taste for ideal beauty – and the pleasure of seeing it depicted – can never be as intense or widespread among a democratic as an aristocratic people.
Hmm…Peter Carey is on record as expressing concern for the survival of culture. He said in his closing address at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival that ‘We have yet to grasp the fact that consuming cultural junk … is completely destructive of democracy’. In other words, Olivier/Carey question whether “high” art and “total” democracy are mutually exclusive? Somewhat related to this is Carey’s ongoing interest (see My life as a fake, and Theft: a love story) in authenticity in art. He explores it here through Olivier’s love of art, and the artistic endeavours of several characters, including Parrot and his mistress.
As for the story itself, there is a lot to enjoy. Olivier and Parrot have a complex relationship that develops from mutual disdain to a cautious friendship as the novel progresses. For all his attempts to be open-minded, Olivier never totally accepts the notion of equality between “men”, but Parrot, from both his early training and a generous nature, manages to tolerate and even accommodate this. Besides these two, there are characters from all strata of society: aristocrats, printers, bankers, land-owners, artists, actors, and so on. And, of course, there are romances, with Olivier’s playing out to a rather ironic conclusion.
One little demur, though. The book did not really engage me emotionally – something I tend to expect in longer novels – and I wonder whether this is partly due to the picaresque genre whose episodic and comic nature can have a distancing effect. Is this a failing? I think not, but it was noticeable, and means that the writing and ideas have to be powerful enough to carry the reader along. And mostly they do here, largely due to the novel’s pacing.
So, what is Carey’s conclusion? Well, it’s pretty even-handed, with both the aristocrat and the servant summing up their experience of America. But, in a twist on Tocqueville, the last words are Parrot’s. As a reader who always looks to see if structure informs the meaning, I wonder if this tells us something. Then again, there could be an element of irony in it. However you read it, there is no real answer to the question in the epigraph:
Can it be believed that the democracy which had overthrown the feudal system and vanquished kings will retreat before tradesmen and capitalists? (Alexis de Tocqueville)
Prophetic words, eh.
Parrot and Olivier in America
London: Faber and Faber, 2010