Many readers, myself included, pay particular attention to the beginning of a book. “This one grabbed me from page one”, or “it started slowly, but about five pages in, it really took off.” Some books will start of grandly, but drift and whimper to a close. Then there are those that never get off the ground. If pressed, I’d say that Peter Carey’s new book Parrot & Olivier in America is of the third variety, fast start, but disappointingly stalled. But wait, it’s not that simple. A funny thing happened on the way to Wethersfield, New York. But first things first.
The book is structured around the alternating narratives of Olivier and Parrot. Both are told in the first person, though in the dedication (at the end of the book) we are told that the book was written by Parrot aka John Larrit aka Perroquet. The first two chapters serve to introduce the reader to these two and their early lives. Already with the third chapter (Olivier, Parrot, Olivier) the two principals appear together, as the noble Olivier is convinced that it would be better for him to leave for America — ostensibly to write a book about the new land. They are introduced, and arrangements are made by a family friend, the one-armed Monsieur (the Marquis de Tilbot). To accompany Olivier will be Parrot, hired on as a servant-secretary (but in reality, a spy for Tilbot and Olivier’s mother).
The jumping off point for the fictional character of Olivier is the life of Alexis de Toqueville. But who is Olivier? A noble who knows the world is changing, but who is conflicted about how the changes will impact the nobility and the relationships between his class and the common man. The Blacqueville referred to was his closest friend.
Blacqueville and I were stallions bred for racing, now condemned to pull a cart of night soil.
But what would we do in the present age? What sort of nobles might 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 out lives between the thighs of actresses?
…We deemed ourselves liberal modern men but we were nobles still. So we felt a violent hatred for [those] who blamed the aristocracy for the sins of the Revolution.
That was our paradox, our impossible position.
For while the king’s advisers tried to push back against the Revolution and the bourgeoisie tried to push forward, we occupied a category of our own, trusted neither by our own side nor the other, living in a constant state of contradiction and confusion, unable to imagine what our futures held.
Parrot was a would be engraver/artist who had not the confidence of his artistry. He married an artist far his superior in talent, and was an understudy of sorts to a brilliant engraver of birds, Wilkins. These two characters borrow from John James Audubon. Initially the two (Olivier and Parrot) detested each other. Parrot refers to Olivier disparagingly as Monsieur Migraine. Much of the book is the slow march toward mutual respect. But when, newly arrived in New York, a French aristocratic foreigner and an English tradesman, they are engaged in a street battle and mutually protect each other, the thaw in their relationship begins.
Parrot is engaged in transcribing Oliviers’ observations on America, some of which are funny, and ofttimes say as much about America, as about Olivier himself:
That night I dined as the Americans dined, that is, I had a vast amount of ham. There was no wine at all and no one seemed to think there should be.
Some observations certainly can be read as commentaries on the inevitable direction of the new democracy, as when Olivier is outfitted with a pistol by a new found friend,
And I was suddenly very pleased, not only with his friendship but what it represented – the splendid American ingenuity which had, until this moment, been hidden by the rawness of colonial manners. This patent, this unheralded mechanism, was the precise equivalent of what Guizot hints we might discover in the social arrangements of the New World, something dazzling and generally much improved, a method of modern government like this luxurious pink cartridge in which all the explosive forces are kept safely contained, so ordered and original that one could place them next to an apple and simply admire how the colors played against the light.
While making his observations, you can feel the push-pull of Olivier’s’ admiration and disillusionment Much of this can be traced to his attitudes, his inherited culture of privilege and deference. He has a sense that the rule of law is actually the rule of law and money.
This was not the better future I had sought with such faint heart. It was certainly not the system of American law as it had been previously been laid out for me like precious silver…Only the single egg spot on the banker’s chin gave the clue that all was not as it should be at this interim.
Back to Wethersfield. Just as the narrative seems to falter a bit, I realized that the two characters had reached a point of impasse. An impasse engendered by the chasm of class. Olivier’s infatuation with Democracy is like a lust for an ideal which, by virtue of upbringing, one cannot fully embrace, though all the fibers of his being want to. On the intellectual level. This is mirrored on the physical level as well, in a neat piece of writing.
And Olivier cannot fully embrace Parrot as his equal, though again, intellectually, he knows that Perroquet is every bit as competent, probably more so, than he himself. As for Parrot, neither can he fully shake the impulse to “serve” the nobility, going so far as to give up his marriage bed to his guest, Olivier.
The relationship between Olivier and Parrot is an interesting one – and it comes – silently – to be the lynchpin of the book. I can’t help but think of Coetzee’s brilliant and remarkable Foe, and the question put to Friday:
‘”And then there is the mystery of your submission. Why, during all those years alone with Cruso, did you submit to his rule, when you might easily have slain him, or blinded him and made him into your slave in turn? Is there something in the condition of slavehood that invades the heart and makes a slave a slave for life, as the whiff of ink clings forever to a schoolmaster?'”
Much of what Olivier sees has a subtext of ‘this is where this is going’. It’s not overt, and easily missed, but oddly prescient by accident. Loved the 4th of July celebration:
How would one expect the victors to celebrate the anniversary of the Glorious Fourth, that impossible date when the tides of history surged and. having finally receded, revealed crowns and broken sceptres amid the flotsam on the flat sand. Here the new words, until now unimagined (I am the future and shall serve thee) shining in the wet dawn light.
After that tumult, that burst sac, that spilled blood, with that price paid and the impossible attained, would you not, on the yearly feast, assemble you brave soldiers and their sons and would not each wife and mother, with golden threads and scissors, bind these epaulettes and braid, not to the torn and bloodied remnants of battle but to cloth entirely new, the honorable costume of a great nation?
The Glorious Fourth.
Behind the banners we will expect the new philosophers, the new statesmen, the composers of genius who may have been blinded in combat or even deafened by cannon roar but who can still, in the ceaseless ringing silence of peace, compose the triumphal and the pastoral and thus make hymns for the shining malodorous people who now march from awful serfdom to the light of day.
But Olivier is at once enthralled and appalled by the sight. Carey has written a highly nuanced novel, with amalgamated-reimagined characters from history, to tell a story of the death knell of old Europe and of America’s emergence – an emergence that may – just may – contain the seeds of our own death knell.