Sunday, March 20, 2011
Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
Ooh, Peter Carey is a hooligan, a rough lad, a clever boy. He takes the opportunity this novel provides to lampoon the national character of France and America, though he went rather easier on the British and Australians. But what a send-up it is! Glorious with imagined scenes of snobbery and pomp in royalist France, and rife with grim scenes of those money-making (literally: counterfeiting) British printers, he moves a youngish Olivier, French aristocrat and lawyer, and his secrétaire, the former counterfeiter John Larrit (nicknamed Parrot), to America, ostensibly to investigate the state of American prisons. In America, Olivier had heard, prison management was trying something completely unprecedented: rehabilitation as opposed to life-long penitance.
Modelled on Alexis de Tocqueville’s (short for Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville) chatty travelogue Democracy in America, Olivier de Garmont’s (full name Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont) book of the same name will surely be the greatest book on the habits of new country yet written. Narrated in amusing voice by Humphrey Bower, Parrot and Olivier in America illustrates with broad swathes of the pen-as-sword, the industrious and plebian democratists making a country they can live in. The young women of this new country are deliciously uninhibited, and the young men have a romantic notion they can aspire to greatness. The aristocrat and his secretary are both irrevocably changed by their term in America, become friends, and learn to live as equals. It is a journey both instructive and humorous, and we thank Peter Carey for turning his gimlet eye on our specificities.