Peter Carey mirrors De Tocqueville’s American odyssey
Parrot & Olivier in America
Alfred A. Knopf: 386 pp., $26.95
Come to think of it, America is one long picaresque novel. It takes an Australian-born novelist to remind us of this, mired as we are in the great project, democracy. Imagine a time when a French nobleman, Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur, and his not-so-trusty sidekick, John Larrit, known to loved ones as Parrot, might sail from Le Havre, fleeing the aftershocks of the French Revolution, and land in this bewildering caldron of possibility.
Seen through their eyes, we look strange, as we must have to Alexis de Tocqueville when he studied us and produced “Democracy in America.” De Tocqueville traveled in the United States and Canada in the 1830s with his companion, Beaumont, ostensibly to study our prison system. It is the vigor of this inquiry that gives the book its shelf-life, not De Tocqueville’s research on prisons. We never tire of looking in the mirror — constantly seeing our reflections in other cultures, approving and disapproving. How does our version of democracy stack up?
“Parrot & Olivier in America” is based on the travels of De Tocqueville and Beaumont — Carey has housed the footnotes at https://www.petercareybooks.com. He has written the novel in that wonderful form of the first person that includes the you — Olivier and Parrot both address their readers directly as they explain their histories. Olivier, born in 1805, in the shadow of the Revolution, first recounts his horror upon learning, early in his childhood, that castle life was not all flowers and Latin lessons. The source of his mother’s sadness — her father was dragged to the guillotine by the sans-culottes. “I understood it then,” he says, referring to his ancestral home, “not as a castle of pride and strength, but as a weak place, a soft thing in the coming night.”
When Olivier’s parents are called back to Paris to join the court of the returning King Louis XVIII, Olivier goes with them but is soon sent home to the country while the Bourbons and the Orleans argue over an increasingly useless throne. Olivier becomes a lawyer and, at 26, when all of their lives are in jeopardy, Olivier’s mother, the Comtesse, devises a plan to send her son to America to study prisons; specifically the novel American idea of rehabilitating prisoners while they are incarcerated, a subject that does not interest the young marquis in the slightest.
On the other side of the coin, also in the first person, we meet Parrot, son of an English printer, a talented artist and a red-headed rapscallion. He and his beloved father are working in France for a printer who is hiding a talented engraver, Algernon Watkins (based on Audubon), whose first love is birds and primary occupation is printing counterfeit money. When the printer is busted, Parrot’s father is arrested and the young boy, all of 12, runs off in the forest with another castaway, a hero on the side of the royalists, Marquis Tilbot, a close (very close) friend of Olivier’s mother, the Comtesse.
And there you have it: Parrot is sent off to help Olivier in his research. Parrot has, by the time they leave for the two-month journey to America, lived a few decades. He is 50, in love with a woman and wanting to tell us the story of how he ended up as a traveling companion to the “Marquis de Migraines,” as he calls the overly sensitive Olivier.
Olivier has been listing to port — attending the lectures of a renowned democrat — he is torn in his loyalties to king and country. All around is evidence of the failure of the Revolution: “Is this why you murdered my grandparents and cousins, so you could have this, so you could gather in your beastly warrens and prisons and spread your vile calumnies and wish me dead while all these years no one has done a damn thing for you.... Oh monumental figures of the Revolution, great figures of our past. Oh mammoth fools, mighty sansculottes, elephantine dupes.”
Parrot and Olivier’s American education begins on the ship, where they meet a banker and businessmen. For one thing, Parrot notes, “they carry national pride altogether too far. I doubt whether it is possible to draw from them the least truth unfavorable to their country.” So focused are many of the Americans the two meet that Parrot begins to think he is a freer man than any of them, “more American than any of these bankers and merchants who took their cue from Migraine and treated me like scum.” The food is barely edible, though robust, the women are plain, the men are bounders, and no one dances. As a French nobleman, Olivier is also trapped in the prison of his class: “Our morality in France,” he explains, “is shaped by each man’s knowledge that he is shut in a certain sphere from which he does not hope to escape.”
Olivier loves America and falls in love with an American girl but is too ashamed to bring her back to France to meet his relatives. His affection for America is restrained by his aristocratic upbringing: He sees President Abraham Lincoln in a crowd and describes “the face of one who will never give any weight to the wisdom of his betters. To see the visage of their president is to understand that the farmer and the mechanic are the lords of the New World. Public opinion is their opinion; the public will is their will. This was on no account what I hoped to find.”
Parrot, on the other hand, is in hog heaven. Reunited with the engraver Watkins, he is able to sell the gorgeous engravings of birds in Europe and make a fortune.
Carey braids his story carefully, lovingly. It has all his telltale favorite elements — lawlessness, revolution, hope for the future, men driven by passion. At its heart, “Parrot & Olivier in America” is a western; the simplest story in history, sculpted down to a twinkle in a philosopher’s eye: Man’s search for freedom.
Salter Reynolds is a writer in Los Angeles.