Saturday, August 28, 2010

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

I seem to be on a kick of reading historical novels this past month. I picked up two relatively new historical novels at the beginning of the month and I chose to read The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet first because I knew nothing about the subject matter. Peter Carey’s Parrot & Olivier in America, on the other hand, was set in early 19th century America and “starred” a character loosely based on Alexis de Toqueville. Part of me thought it would be the more uninteresting read because I would already know the basic story.

Part of me also worried whether Carey could pull that off. Hillary Mantel pulled off writing yet another Tudor novel by choosing Cromwell, usually a villain, to be her hero. Carey does pull it off because he makes Olivier (who is based on Toqueville) more of an arrogant, snobbish twit than Toqueville was (or at least that the Toqueville who has come down to us was). He also introduces a completely fictional English character in John Larrit a/k/a Parrot who is forced to accompany Olivier to America as his servant and secretaire.

In general it works. Carey switches between the voices of Olivier and Parrot and we see the differing views on America and Democracy. Although, I should say that it takes Olivier and Parrot almost 150 pages to get to America. But the 150 pages are, I think, essential because they represent to the reader what the “old Europe” is like and offer a good comparison to the “new” America.

Carey’s purpose is to represent a funny, entertaining and, ultimately, enlightening argument about America. In the end we might say that both Parrot and Olivier are right. Olivier is disturbed (as was Toqueville) by the idea of the tyranny of the masses. Olivier is looking at society as a whole. Parrot is fascinated by the idea of what a man (or woman) might make of himself in America. Parrot is an individualist.

Olivier, thinking about the difference between France and America, says about what he has learned:

Yet all I had learned was that when the mob was allowed to rule a second mob sprang up to rule beneath them, and the difference between the Americans and the French is that Americans do not need to steal from their fellows when they can roam the countryside in bands, cutting trees and taking wealth. Anyone can claim a site for his chateau, whether he be a night soil man or a portraitist.

But although the subject matter is serious and historical, Carey is, of course, Carey and is very funny. He creates a Parrot who is the Figaro to Olivier’s Duke (if Figaro were twice the age of the Duke and eventually went to America with him). There is a great deal of humor at the expense of the French: “He exhibited such magnificent ugliness you might assume him to be French”.

But Carey mocks the Americans too. Olivier encounters over and over again the irritating type of American who cannot help but expound on its exceptionalism and perceived perfection. Here Olivier reacts to Mr. Peeks, a banker, who informs of his high regard for law, but not just any law, American law.

“An American law, sir,” he said steadily, and I saw he would no more query its justice than he would admit that the coast of Connecticut was the most shocking monument to avarice one could have ever witnessed, its ancient forests gone, smashed down and carted off for profit.

Unlike Toqueville, Olivier is not a willing traveller to America and writing any kind of book is not, initially, his own idea. His overprotective maman, who has lived through the revolution and whose father was guillotined, is worried that her son could end up target of the mob during one of France’s many uprisings:

“You wish me to flee to America like Chateaubriand”, I said while thinking, She is calling the doctor for me once again.

“”My dear Olivier, he did not flee. He went to write a book!”

And so Olivier is sent off to write a report: On the Penitentiary System in the United States and its Application in France (Toqueville also went to America to write about the prison system). But eventually Olivier decides to write an additional, broader treatise on America itself, an endeavor that Parrot is only slightly interested in.

Although Carey pulls off Olivier, it is Parrot who makes the novel come alive. Olivier is a brilliant observer (perhaps because Carey, by his own admission, pinched many of his observations from Toqueville) but Parrot is in the thick of things. In a series of flashbacks we learn of Parrot’s almost Dickensian (although years before Dickens) childhood as he is orphaned at a young age and that he spent years in the British penal colony in Australia. His benefactor, usually called “Monsieur” “rescued” him from Australia and made him a servant and a spy. But all his life Parrot wanted to be an artist and there is a certain poignancy to his discovery that, at the age of almost 50, he is surrounding himself with artists while he himself creates nothing and knows he has not the talent to truly be an artist. (Parrot has a mistress, Mathilde, who represents all the women artists over the ages who have been better than the men who take credit for much of their work. He also creates a character who produces James Audubon-style bird studies.)

In the end it is art that is the key to the argument in this novel. Parrot recognizes the commercial viability of the bird prints and is in love with Mathilde and her paintings. Olivier consistently refers to Mathilde’s work as mediocre and turns his nose up at the artistic venture. By the end Olivier tells Parrot that when he looks on Mathilde’s paintings hanging on the wall he sees “the awful tyranny of the majority” but as Parrot remembers, Olivier is near sighted and myopic. He thinks:

… I frankly loathed the certainty of his judgment. he might go away and write a book about this, but what could he know from so short a visit? The time it would take to make this nation would be put into centuries and it did not do to come prancing around in your embroidered vests and buckled shoes and even if the New York Sentinel reported what you said, it did not mean you knew.

“These people are not the same as the people you distrust in France,. they will be educated.”

“Oh dear,” he said, and held his head in his hands and i could not tell if this was because he thought it a very bad idea or if he considered education impossible and expected our people would all grow up ignorant and their children after them.

“From what will they get their culture?” he cried, “the newspapers? God help you all.”

As a reader, we cannot see Mathilde’s paintings so we cannot judge Olivier’s artistic judgment but his warnings ring true (as do Toqueville’s). I won’t quote the end of the novel in which Olivier warns of the kind of country that many people today still worry the United States is or will become. Nor will I quote from Parrot’s counterargument in the “Dedication” that he is wrong. You can see the same debates among political pundits today, although the language of Parrot and Olivier is finer.

On the whole I enjoyed this novel. I was disappointed that Carey chose not to travel the trail of Toqueville through Wisconsin and up to Montreal. I wondered if he intended to but then deleted those portions since many of Olivier’s warnings were that the country would be run by not only “woodsmen” but also by “fur traders” and yet he met no fur traders in the novel. But that is a minor disappointment.