Parrot and Olivier in America
By Andrew Welch
April 20, 2010
The opening pages of Peter Carey’s novel Parrot and Olivier in America, set during the early 19th century, introduce readers to Olivier de Garmont and John Larrit, two figures who could not be more different. While Olivier comes from a family of position and money in France, John (nicknamed Parrot at an early age) is made an orphan after his father is arrested for his involvement with a dubious printing house. The superiority of the Garmont name, and of the aristocratic class in general, is deeply ingrained in Olivier’s consciousness—any other way of life seems impossible to him. Parrot, however, has never known anything but a life of harsh servitude.
It is through the eyes of these two characters that Carey, Australia’s most celebrated contemporary novelist, relates a light-hearted, adventurous tale reminiscent of the classical picaresque novels of the time. But this novel is much more than an amusing romp; it is an exploration of what makes America a country that is both magnificent and flawed all at once.
In the years after the French Revolution, Olivier finds himself in a world on the brink of change. But his interest in the lectures of Guizot, a liberal historian and politician of the time, places him in danger of incurring the wrath of both the lower class, who view Olivier’s presence at the lectures as a threat, and the aristocracy, who believe the young man has turned against the crown. His parents, fearing for their son’s life, send him away on a mission to write a book on the American prison system, with Parrot as his servant. The two start off by hating each other, of course, before eventually forming a deep yet complicated friendship.
The light-hearted tone of Carey’s novel and the pairing of two radically different characters on an epic journey brings to mind the Road pictures of the ‘40s and ‘50s starring Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. But the interaction between Olivier and Parrot is much more subdued, as befits their relationship. The result is entertaining, but their interactions never feel as lively as they could have if Carey had allowed for more openness between master and servant.
Where Carey’s book ultimately succeeds is in its nuanced exploration of America’s strengths and weaknesses. As Olivier’s journeys expose him to forms of greed and pride never before witnessed in his homeland of France, he finds himself resenting the country he has come to explore. His feelings ultimately ripen at a Fourth of July celebration in Albany, where he witnesses a lawyer delivering a speech boasting America’s greatness over every other country’s since the beginning of time. It is all too much for the poor aristocrat, leading him to say of democracy and America, “It is a truly lovely flower, a tiny tender fruit, but it will not ripen well.”
However, if Olivier can only see what is bad in America, Parrot stands as an example of the promise the country held, and still holds, for those with ambition, creativity and a strong work ethic. Faced with a new way of living, Parrot sees that he cannot continue on as a servant for the rest of his life. Instead, he must chart a course that will take him upwards from rags into—if not riches—something much grander than he could have ever hoped for in France. In the end, talking with Olivier in the front yard of his own home, Parrot can only look at his friend and pity him for being blind to the beacon of hope that democracy truly is.
The character of Olivier is based on the real-life figure of Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America remains influential today. Despite this, and the fact that many of Olivier’s own observations belong to Tocqueville, familiarity with that classical text aren’t necessary to understand or enjoy the narrative Carey spins. Though more might’ve been done to exploit the novel’s comic potential, the lively narration of the two characters and the complex view of America’s early days should give all readers, and particularly fans of historical fiction, something to enjoy.
Andrew Welch lives in Roanoke, Texas, and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.