Adventures of a master and his servant

2010-04-14 00:00


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.

Join the conversation! encourages commentary submitted via MyNews24. Contributions of 200 words or more will be considered for publication.

We reserve editorial discretion to decide what will be published.
Read our comments policy for guidelines on contributions. publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
Comments have been closed for this article.

Inside News24

Traffic Alerts
There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.


Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.

Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire network.


Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.

Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.