Adventures in a Brave New World
Andrew Riemer, Sydney Morning Herald, October 31, 2009
The meaning of friendship and democracy are explored in arich and dazzling novel that shows a writer at his best.
PARROT and Olivier in America sounds like the title of a children’s book and there is indeed something irresistibly youthful about the zing and bounce of this picaresque tale spanning three continents. This is Peter Carey at his best: playful, extravagant, even rambling at times, yet fully in control. It is sometimes hard to know where these adventures are heading, yet they all finish up going somewhere meaningful and satisfying.
As with many of Carey’s other works, there is a historical model, perhaps two, behind this extravaganza. It begins in France in the early years of the 19th century. Olivier de Garmont is the scion of two noble families, survivors of the Revolution and of the Terror of 1793, who have retreated to their chateau in Normandy while the vile Bonaparte reigns supreme. Olivier is a sensitive, sickly child, the servant girl Odile is often ordered to fetch the Chinese bowl filled with leeches, whose world seems to fall apartwhen he discovers an illustration in an old broadsheet of the execution of Louis XVI. The swishing blade of the guillotine haunts every moment of his life. He comes to learn that many of his relatives, each represented by the carcass of a pigeon wrapped in paper, had fallen victim to that allegedly humane device.
Time passes. When the monarchy is finally restored, after Bonaparte’s second exile, to remote St Helena, Olivier’s family finds itself scorned by the new order, despite their loyalty to the Ancien Regime during the darkest days of revolution and terror. Olivier, a lawyer in Versailles, falls under the influence of the historian Francois Guizot, a liberal and an opponent of thereactionary Charles X, whose overthrow in the July Revolution of 1830 Guizot helped engineer. The young lawyer is assailed by peril from all sides. His family decides to ship him off to America, ostensibly to study prison reform, to keep him out of harm’s way.
Much of this recalls the fortunes of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America is still acknowledged (a century and a half after its first publication) as a masterwork of historical, social and political analysis. In Carey’s bravura version of Tocqueville’s travels through the fledgling Union, Olivier is accompanied by an older man, John Larrit ,part footman, part adventurer, part spy and part artist, in many ways the resourceful, cunning servant of old comedies and picaresque tales, known as Parrot or Perroquet because of his rare skill as a mimic. Here, too, there is historical precedent of the flimsiest kind, a hint of the career of John James Audubon and his celebrated series of engravings, Birds of America.
When he was a boy, Parrot tramped with his father, an itinerant printer, from one clandestine press to another in the English countryside. There the young Parrot came to hear of Tom Paine, of the doctrines of the Jacobins and also to learn something about the art of counterfeiting. Disaster struck when Parrot and his father found work in 1793 in a printing house on Dartmoor where counterfeit assignats, the paper money of revolutionary France, were produced for the sinister Monsieur, the one-armed Marquis deTilbot, otherwise known as the Hero of the Vendee, the region of France that resisted the revolution with the greatest zeal.
A melodramatic episode set in a printing shop near the river Dart and its aftermath represent Carey at his most exuberantly Dickens-like. There is a touch, once more, of Great Expectations as Monsieur and Parrot seek shelter and sustenance in the harsh environment of Dartmoor. At one brilliantly conveyed moment, Parrot catches sight of his father, for the last time as it turns out. Then, as we learn much later, Monsieur abducts him to Port Jackson, where Parrot’s artistic talents flourish, where he marries and find happinessas well as his home, except that he recognises it as his true home only much later, long after Monsieur dragged him back to France and then sent him off tospy on Olivier during the young aristo’s voyage to America.
Parrot and Olivier in America is a tour de force, a wonderfully dizzying succession of adventures and vivid, at times caricatured, characters executed with great panache. This intricate story is told by Olivier and Parrot in alternate chapters, a clumsy device in some hands but highly successful in Carey’s.
Parrot’s voice is strong, earthy, irreverent, even cynical but often tinged with a touch of compassion for Olivier. Olivier is, in one way, the effete aristocrat: moody, aloof, always prompted to stand on his dignity. Carey endows him, nevertheless, with some of Tocqueville’s sharpness of mind, liberal temperament and even a degree of self-knowledge. How America tests Olivier’s assumptions about the world, and about servants (like Parrot), too, is one of the most compelling elements in this splendid novel.
As Olivier travels around America, filled with wonder and bemusement at that pragmatic world of self-sufficiency and rough-edged democracy, he falls in love with a true American beauty. Back in France, his mother is aghast at the prospect of a hideous misalliance. As things turn out, she needn’t have worried, for reasons I won’t go into. This much can be said, however: for all its vitality and promise of a great future, America is too raw, too uncouth and far too impressed by titles and rank for Olivier, the sophisticated European. Parrot, on the other hand, finds his second true home on the Hudson River with his Parisienne lover, the painter Mathilde.
Carey settled in America many years ago. I could not help wondering, as I made my way through this captivating fable, whether he sees himself as Olivier, both admiring and critical, or as Parrot, who found contentment there, or perhaps a bit of each. The question may be improper, but it insisted on cropping up.
Andrew Riemer is the Herald’s chief book reviewer.