Jennifer Byrne

The oddest of Carey couples

Jennifer Byrne, The Age, October 31, 2009

THEY are the oddest of couples, even from an author famous for them. Olivier, the overbred French aristocrat, scion of a family scythed and still shadowed by the guillotine; Parrot, the prickle-tempered, carrot-haired son of a Dartmoor printer turned forger. Their only link, a mysterious one-armed marquis who escorts them both into the new world of America.

Peter Carey launches his latest novel with the hectic energy of a juggler spinning plates on a pole, simultaneously, like the showman he is, offering a wave of the scarf, a sprightly jig, a bow to thecrowd. The first two chapters, in which first Olivier, then Parrot, are fulsomely introduced, such a hurdy-gurdy of history, anecdote, quotation and wit it makes you pant. If it takes a while to get one’s eyes off the plates (will they fall? what’s the next trick?) I can only assure that once this novel grabs you, it holds you. Heart as well as brain.

It’s the story of a long and improbable friendship, a romance, and a cracking adventure. A study of class and a sharp argument about democracy. A tragi-comic tale of how losers can become winners, and winners can blow their chances.

We meet them as boys, each writing in the first person, already jostling for our attention. Olivier de Garmont is the younger, a chronic nose-bleeder, an admirer of the leech, living in indulged exile outside Paris in a state of post-revolutionary shock. He has drunk in the Terror with his mother’s milk, though still whispers “Vive le Roi” in his prayers while the mob and the monarchists battle for power. Soon, like Alexis de Tocqueville (yes, this is another of Carey’s fabulous “true histories”) he will cross the sea to confront and report on the land of opportunity and, to his jaundiced eye, another form of mob rule.

Parrot’s story starts some decades earlier, in the muddy lanes of Dartmoor where the motherless lad, fledgling in a nest of English forgers, is working as a strange kind of chimney sweep. For inside the chimney is the hidden room of brilliant engraver and “poor pale secret thing” Algernon Watkins, and it is Parrot’s job each day to remove both his stinky slops and the precious packages of impeccably forged currency that could send them all to the gallows. As, in the case of his beloved da, it does.

Carey readers will recognise his spoor: the orphan, the oddity, the wildly imaginative, intertwined plots, the sudden reversals of fortune. by which, when the two collide, Parrot is an aspiring artist and indentured servant, spy and scribe while Olivier is being sent for safety to America, to prepare (like de Tocqueville) a report on the US penal system. Instant enemies. “Who is this leathery creature?” wonders Olivier of the upstart Parrot. For Parrot, Olivier is Lord Migraine, the Comte Nez Pointu.

En route are intrigues, disasters, and drunken nights on arrack. A friendship grows, yet their voices, in their alternate chapters, remain vigorously, insistently distinct. Olivier becomes gingerly intrigued by this democracy and is a surprise hit in its raw-boned capital of New York, though America’s mercantile values offend every aristocratic bone. Amazed and appalled he notes “the feverish enthusiasm which accompanies Americans’ pursuit of prosperity . . . ceaselessly tormented by the vague fear that they have failed to choose the shortest route to achieve it”.

Parrot lacks the luxury of rumination. Already 50, he has “walked down too many roads, slept under too many hedges, lost too many homes” , including one with a wife and child in Botany Bay, an episode described with enough sweet tenderness and regret to fuel an entire novel. For Parrot, America is his best, last chance.

While Parrot and Olivier has the sweep and loveable rogue count to warrant the description picaresque, how tired Carey must get of that adjective, there’s more than rollicking going on here. At one level, it is his love letter to America, reminding those of us who find the modern empire hard to swallow of the boldness of the original experiment, its drive for change and rebirth. The dream shimmers not just for Parrot but for his headstrong mistress Mathilde, for the burnt but triumphant crisp of a man that Watkins becomes, even for the main-chance marquis uncluttered either by scruple or the strictures of the Ancien Regime.

But in using de Tocqueville and his classic Democracy in America as a kind of palimpsest, Carey can rehearse , and in a clever twist, predict, the liabilities of democracy. Without ever mentioning their names or breaking faith with his timeline, he takes a good hard slap at George Bush and Sarah Palin, the free choice of a free people. Olivier’s moment of reckoning comes on the Glorious Fourth, Independence Day, which his fiance’s father promises, “will make you American”. Or could, should he choose. His argument with himself over what this means is both funny (“I did an excellent job of disguising my feelings. I think it is the sole talent of the aristocracy”) and poignant. A lesson, in its way, about human evolution.

For clever Olivier is like the scorpion in the fable that cannot, even to save its own life, change its nature. While simple, shrewd Parrot reminds us it was not the strongest but the most adaptive that Darwin said would survive and inherit the earth.

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