on August 13, 2011
Parrot is the son of a journeyman printer and apprentice engraver whose master, Mr Watkins, appears to die in a fire set by the owner of a publishing house on the discovery by local officials that the particular skills of Watkins have been used in producing forged currency, a crime punishable by death. On the run he meets a one-armed Frenchman, the enigmatic and mysterious Tilbot, in whose services he travels first to Australia, then to France and finally to America to provide assistance to Olivier.
Olivier is essentially a re-imagining of the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, the son of a noble family who managed to avoid the guillotine during the reign of terror. On finding himself snubbed as the Bourbons return to the throne following the July Revolution, Olivier's father fears for his son's safety and so with Tilbot's help Olivier's mother arranges for him to travel to America ostensibly on behalf of the French government to undertake a survey of the American Penal system but what he writes is a book on the people and institutions of the budding democracy.
If any of this sounds complicated then I can assure you that this is very much a simplification of what is a sometimes irritatingly convoluted book. The narrative goes back and forwards between the two main protagonist as the old world invades the new and there are some very telling judgements made on the culture, political institutions and the nature and social etiquette of the people of the new democracy and as an Englishman living in Canada it has made think a lot about the differences of living in a nation that still has some notions of aristocratic entitlement as compared with a nation when essentially anyone can reach the heights that come with public office, especially when one has money to grease the wheels.
Peter Carey I think had a great theme for his novel and there is in evidence some first rate research and one can almost see the 18th century America through de Tocqueville's ever widening eyes however he didn't really seem to have thought up a story to match his vision and as the story meanders its way with little or no conclusion at the end one can't help but feel that the plot was made up on the fly, so to speak. There are some great set-pieces but they don't do enough to rescue the book from its faults.
The ripples of the revolutions of the last quarter of the eighteenth century have not settled yet, as the author takes us into the third decade of the nineteenth. Two unlikely partners navigate the reshaping societies of Europe and America, and through their turmoil and adjustments, find their places. Carey allows his two protagonists to tell us their stories, capturing in their voices the complexities of the changing worlds. It is a delightful book, rich in its language, and yet sensuous and funny at the same time. It is a worthy finalist of the 2010 Booker prize.
I haven't read a genuinely skillful writer like this in a long time. Or maybe I just have old-school tastes, I don't know. Anyway, chalk this book up as a literary work that isn't hard to read through. And it's not even that plot-driven, when it comes down to it. It's really driven by the relationship between 2 characters in a strange place who don't have much in common. And yet they grow to understand each other more and more as the novel progresses. It is a funny book, mostly in a tongue-in-cheek manner. And you never know what's going to happen next, but you know its going to be good.
Did I mention that it's written very well?
The novel opens in France where sickly, sensitive Olivier de Garmont and the remnants of his aristocratic family have survived the Revolution and the Terror of 1793, and are surviving the Bonaparte regime in their chateau in Normandy. The restoration of the monarchy brings no joy to Olivier's family, and his family decides to send him to America - ostensibly to study prison reform.
Parrot, considerably older than Olivier, is the son of an itinerant English printer. Olivier and Parrot are brought together by the mysterious one-armed Marquis de Tilbot whose presence looms large across the novel. When Olivier sets sail for America, Parrot accompanies him as both protector and spy.
The narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, covering both their adventures together and their separate lives. This enables the introduction and exploration of a number of different themes in the novel: including love, politics and ambition. I especially enjoyed the differing views of democracy:
`In a democracy, it seemed, one could not go against a servant's will.' (Olivier)
`I read Tom Paine by candlelight, but for 18 hours a day I was a vassal.' (Parrot)
Olivier is trapped by his past, caught between his aristocratic past and a brash new world where equality means dealing with people of different classes and station in life as though they are equals. Olivier is never really comfortable in America, although when he falls in love with an American heiress he sees some possibilities. Parrot, on the other hand, has already experienced much in his life and is more flexible in his approach to opportunities. It is Parrot's narrative that particularly enriches the story because it enlarges the world beyond that of the myopic Olivier.
The novel may have been inspired by Alexis de Tocqueville's travels through America, but there is more than one story in this novel. Parrot's life has been far more varied and he is, it seems, far better equipped to survive in the New World.
I am tempted to write more about this novel: it's vibrant, energetic and vastly entertaining. But for me, a lot of the pleasure was derived from reading the novel without knowing what was likely to happen next, and I don't wish to spoil this for others. Read it for pleasure, dissect it for significant themes if you so choose. But if you do choose to explore those themes then you may need to reread the novel - or read it at a far more leisurely pace than I did.
`Who would have imagined such an extraordinary world?'