Adventures of a master and his servant

2010-04-14 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Parrot and Olivier in America

Peter Carey

Faber and Faber

STIMULATED by his reading of ­Alexis de Tocqueville’s (1805-1859) Democracy in America, and subsequently fuelled by numerous related texts, Booker Prizewinner, Peter Carey, embarked on his latest novel, Parrot and Olivier in America, a tale of the experiences of an improbable servant-master team in the young American democracy of the 1830s.

Olivier de Garmont, born into an aristocratic French family in 1805, is a frail, myopic, though intellectually precocious individual, who, as a young adult, becomes increasingly aware of the dangers of being an aristocrat with a liberal outlook in volatile post-Revolutionary France.

Persuaded by his neurotic, embittered mother and her admirer, the one-armed Marquis de Tilbot, Olivier sets off for America, ­instructed to write a report on the American penitentiary system and its possible application in France.

Accompanying Olivier de Garmont, as his secrétaire, is John ­Larrit, dubbed Parrot, by virtue of his skills in mimicry.

A would-be engraver and son of a journeyman printer, he has had a difficult life, serially recreating himself, following the arrest (and subsequent death) of his father, who unwittingly became involved with a group of Devonshire forgers producing counterfeit Revolutionary currency.

Initially repugnant to each other, Olivier de Garmont and Parrot gradually forge a mutually dependent ­relationship, the calligraphically challenged Frenchman in need of Parrot’s skills and Parrot requiring — though often resenting — the ­employment he has.

The aristocrat finds American architecture dull, even tasteless, the cuisine unsophisticated, the New York library limited. His overriding impression is of a restlessness of spirit in a country where upward mobility is possible for all. He targets the rocking-chair as an “awful monument to democratic restlessness”, and bemoans the absence of that stillness so essential for cultural and ­intellectual development.

His predictions for the future of America are dire: a country led by ignorant presidents; the people uncultivated, beguiled by the press, ill-read and lacking in discernment regarding the arts. John Larrit, entrepreneurial of spirit and opportunistic, has reason to be more optimistic.

Engagingly told from the alternating perspectives of Olivier de Garmont and Parrot, Carey’s novel is rich in detail and peopled with a host of colourful characters, some of whom could be escapees from the work of Charles Dickens. Well-informed, well-paced and frequently amusing, the novel highlights that crucial period (1793-1837), in the histories of Europe and America, of considerable interest to many.

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