Parrot & Olivier in America, by Peter Carey

by Robert A. Parker

This is quite a feat. This 2009 novel is about a Frenchman (Olivier) who comes to America and falls in love, and about his aide, Parrot, an Englishman who serves his needs in America and also falls in love. It is a very entertaining novel, as well as a very penetrating one, both in its portrait of the two men and in its portrait of America.

While it works completely as a novel, it is also a fictionalization of history. It is the story of Alexis de Tocqueville, and his adventures that produced Democracy in America. I am not a student of history, so I do not know what is true here and what is imagined. But it does not matter. What matters is that Carey has created here real characters in a real world.

The novel begins slowly, as it reveals the early life that brought these two men together. Olivier is an unformed, privileged aristocrat who is sent to America when French revolutionaries threaten his and other noble families. Parrot, who lives a more confused life as a printer’s apprentice, loses his father in a fire and ends up as the servant of the aristocratic Marquis de Tilbott, who takes him under his wing as an apprentice, betrays him in Australia, then brings him to France, where he is assigned to report on the activities of Olivier in America.

   But once the two board ship, meet its American passengers, and arrive in New York, their encounter with the new culture, and its contrasts to the old, introduces the novel’s solid substance. For while Olivier has an assignment to investigate prison conditions in America, he soon becomes captivated by the social and cultural differences, a development that he will explore in a classic equivalent to Democracy in America.

However, it is not the culture of America that entices the reader, but the personal stories of each man, and of some of the people they meet. We are particularly drawn to the love lives of the two men. Will they find their true love, will their love be acknowledged, and will they each find happiness? It is not an original theme, but a reliable one serious novelists rely on to draw the reader into the substance of their work.

Here, the substance is the contrasting cultures of America and Europe, the aristocratic leadership of the latter and the democratic leadership of the former. Which is what inspired de Tocqueville, of course. And the novel ends with the consequences of that contrast on the lives of our two heroes.

But I find Carey’s conclusion a little too pat. Perhaps because it lacks drama—and because the ending itself lacks any emotional impact. For while there is a contrast in the fates of the two men, even an intended irony, the result comes more from the head than the heart. And their fates seem somewhat arbitrary: one love affair seems to end for the flimsiest of reasons, at least flimsy for our day; and one man strikes it easy, too easy, as he discovers an unexpected, and convenient, source of income.

This novel is told with just enough of the 19th century style to convey its historic portrait of two lives and two countries. But Carey paid more heed to the novel’s structure, which is built around the contrasting experiences of Olivier and Parrot. The emphasis is slightly toward the former, but his fate is less satisfying than Parrot’s. Is this because his character is based on a real de Tocqueville, while Parrot is strictly imaginary? Indeed, the imaginary Parrot is there to create for Carey the contrasting viewpoint that de Tocquville’s actual companion did not.

The contrast exists in the two men’s upbringing, their intellectual acumen, their effort to control their own destiny, their reaction to America, their eventual integrity, and the destiny of their love. While they come together with a certain mutual respect at the end, after alternating chapters heighten their differences, the novel’s conclusion fails to reach a sense of completeness regarding Olivier. His classic work is not enough.

So what does it all mean? Carey wanted to present here, I believe, two reactions to the encountering of America by two young Europeans, one an impractical French aristocrat and one a much more practical, underprivileged Englishman. How their understanding of America differs, how their ambitions differ, how their success differs.

Olivier is allowed to reach certain conclusions about America that are both perceptive and half-baked. Of the former, he believes that the country’s leaders will come from all walks of life and some will be “barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science.” He also wrongly holds that a society of equals will never produce great art, that only an aristocracy has the leisure needed to appreciate and create it.

These conclusions are reached after a series of entertaining encounters by each man with the people of America. The most interesting one comes from Olivier’s encounter with the family of Amelia Godefroy, whom he loves. Her father is a wealthy, perceptive man who introduces Olivier to much of America, both fascinating him and disillusioning him.

The book is best summed up by the Reading Group Guide: “Both Parrot and Olivier are profoundly affected by the democratic leveling of class distinctions they find in America. Olivier is alternately repulsed and fascinated, disdainful and admiring of the new democracy, while Parrot, after drifting aimlessly, finally finds the freedom he’s been denied all his life. By showing us their reactions to the fledging democracy, Carey gives readers a visceral sense of just how thrilling and baffling a place America could be for new arrivals from Europe — and how unsettling of old-world social conventions.”

Carey is always entertaining, and I look forward to reading other works by him. He has a unique way of interpreting past reality. It becomes a starting point for his own imagination. And his embellishments, his unique interpretation, convert the result into literary art. (December, 2013)

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