Peter Carey is one of only two novelists (along with J.M. Coetzee) to have won the Booker Prize two times. Since bookmakers start taking bets on these coveted literary prizes early, odds are that more than a few people will be putting money down on Carey to be the first three-time Booker winner, based on the promise of his latest remarkable historical novel, PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA.
Carey uses as his touchstone the real historical figure of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat, historian and philosopher who made often-quoted observations of American life following his travels here in the early part of the 19th century. With de Tocqueville as his inspiration, Carey creates the character of Olivier de Garmont, the son of French aristocrats who somehow managed to keep their heads
(literally) during the recent French Revolution.
But when another uprising seems to be fomenting, Olivier is beset not only by uncertainty about his place in society (“What would we do in this present age? What sort of nobles would society still permit? Would we stamp on wasps’ nests? Would we drown swimming against the tide of history? Would we break open the door we could not yet locate, and enter the salons of a glorious time as yet unborn? Or would we spend our lives between the thighs of actresses?”) but also with very real threats to his life. For his own safety, Olivier is sent to the United States, a country still in its infancy.
Accompanying him is John Larrit, known as Parrot, an older man whose background, temperament and place in French society could not be farther from Olivier’s own. Parrot is an engraver, a skilled tradesman who was brought up (sort of) by his father, apprenticed at an early age, and now assigned to spy on (in the guise of serving) Olivier. Parrot’s subservience rankles him, his young charge annoys him. But, like thousands of American immigrants before them, the new democracy throws these Europeans of vastly different circumstances together cheek-by-jowl.
In the characters of Olivier and Parrot, Carey has created a thoroughly entertaining odd couple. Through flashbacks of their earlier lives, he illustrates how Europe’s stratified social and class systems kept them apart; through their picaresque adventures together, Carey portrays American history and democracy in action. PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA is a really fine example of what can be accomplished through historical fiction. Using the perspective of a contemporary novelist (incidentally, an Australian who has lived in, and made his own observations of, America for the last 20 years), Carey illustrates the significance of historical events through the persons of two individuals who are both historically authentic but also culturally relevant today.
Using convincing 19th-century prose style, Carey goes far beyond historical allegory, crafting flesh-and-blood characters who nevertheless illustrate --- on a human scale --- the comic, messy and promising ideals of American-style democracy.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 14, 2011