[22 March 2011]
Well, really, what’s left to say about Peter Carey’s Parrot & Olivier in America? That is, anything you can’t find in the glowing, nay, incandescent reviews quoted on the front cover… also the inset cover page (specially added for the purpose), back cover and first couple of interior pages? And that’s not even including the ‘National Book Award Finalist’ tagline. This is one first international edition with all its bases covered.
I mention all this not because this is a defiantly iconoclastic review urging readers not to believe the hype – as originally planned, upon reading the one blurb from Oprah, especially—but because in spite of my skepticism I, too, have succumbed. At less than ten pages in, my heart was irrevocably lost. This book is, in fact, just as dazzling, brilliant, sophisticated, honest and true an achievement as ever a blurb proclaimed.
It all begins, as Carey explains in the Acknowledgements, with the life of Alexis de Toqueville, author of the classic Democracy in America. He is reimagined here as Olivier de Garmont, and this ‘improvisation’ on a post-revolutionary French noble thrown into close quarters with the American dream becomes an ideal starting-point for Carey’s Cirque de Soleil-esque imagination. The outlines of history are there for the enthusiast to enjoy – but the concept on its own is quixotic enough to ensure that knowledge of the source material isn’t a perquisite for reader enjoyment.
Olivier, then, is born the scion of proud survivors of the ancien regime, a physically delicate but profoundly observant child. So much so that, 25 years of restoration, revolution and empire later, the young man’s attempts to find himself have become enough of a political annoyance that his family packs him off the United States for his own safety, as a Commissioner charged with writing a report on American prison systems.
Cynically aware of his status as a sinecure, Olivier has no particular reason to care about this new and dreadfully uncultured land. Which contempt of course makes him (in some of the novel’s most acutely funny passages) that much more vulnerable to the American willingness to receive him as an Important Personage. Bemused by his hosts’ blissfully complete unawareness of their lack of sophistication, the Comte de Garmont is very shortly completely fascinated by America – but it is the indulgent fascination of a parent for a child, and thus is equally vulnerable to the child’s unexpected demands for respect.
His family – his mother especially – are acutely aware of the pitfalls of giving a restless young scion the freedom of the Land of Opportunity, so they recruit as Olivier’s valet and secretaire John ‘Parrot’ Larrit, aide-de-camp of an old family friend… which friend just happens to also be an old spymaster.
Parrot—so nicknamed, significantly, because of his ability as a mimic—is not in the least impressed with his assignment. He is intelligent, and artistically gifted; a life of raw hardship has also made him contemptuous of artificial status, and unwilling to bend the knee to a man he does not respect. On the surface, he makes a wholly predictable mockery of his foppish new employer and his pretensions to political sophistication. But as Parrot’s own story unfolds (in flashbacks that grow in urgency throughout) he stands revealed as just as much a prisoner of self as the stuffiest aristocrat, and just as surely running, blindly, from circumstance.
Friendship between master and servant grows, reluctantly but surely, out of shared sensitivities. Together – with the alternate help and hindrance of a cast that besides government officials, businessmen and bankers includes Parrot’s magnificently temperamental French mistress and her dotty maman—they explore the intricacies, inconsistencies and frank delusions of American democracy, from highest Ideal to basest exploitation. Throughout, Carey’s effervescent arabesques of language and imagery perfectly capture his heroes’ unsteady journey from icons of the Old World to aspirants in the New.
Olivier’s interest in the abstract possibilities of America abruptly shifts to the concrete when he meets the lovely daughter of one particular prison official. At the same time practical Parrot is being forced by those same abstract possibilities to realise what he might have been. In the end they both find themselves face to face with one of democracy’s most wrenching corollaries: when once you have declared yourself free to make choices, there is no way to avoid the consequences of the choices you make.
This combination of sturdy plot machinery and constant originality in the telling results in a richly satisfying read in the grand old Dickensian manner, in which abstract ideals are made accessible by humanity’s consistent failure to live up to them. While Dickens was passionately invested in the ideas, Carey finds delight in the people.
He passes no judgments, sets up no pedestals—merely allows his characters to become fully human. He is wise enough to understand that that one simple achievement springs every possibility of comedy, tragedy and everything in between, and skilled enough to make them dance before the reader with light and elegance.
In short, it’s the kind of book that before the conclusion already has you mentally planning the sequel (I would not be surprised to discover it’s inspired fan fiction) and besides which waiting eagerly for the movie. Luckily, as it turns out Carey has been at the novel-writing business for awhile now – thank you, indefatigable international publicists, for summarizing each and every one of his other books in the back of this one – so the wait shouldn’t be too onerous.