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Peter Carey: Parrot and Olivier in America

There are some writers who can readily write about any part of the world, while others really only do well when writing about their own corner of the world. Peter Carey is generally in the latter camp. His books set in Australia – think Illywhacker or Bliss, for example – tend to be his better ones. This is not a hard and fast rule, as he has set books in England and the United States and even in a fictitious country, but he does tend to do better at home. This book, unfortunately, only proves my point. It is set in England, France and, mainly, in the United States and, while it certainly is not a bad book by any means, it is not up to his usual standard.

The book starts with Olivier – Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont to give him his full name. Though born after the French Revolution, he is still affected by it. His parents were imprisoned but managed to survive, though his grandfather did not. The family still lives on the old estate, though they are less successful reclaiming their house in Paris. However, things are not what they used to be and Olivier (who, of course, did not experience what they used to be) and his parents do not like Bonaparte and do not like democracy. Indeed, Olivier is obnoxious and arrogant, dependent on his servant, and very demanding. When things take a turn for the worse again, it is decided to send Olivier off to the United States, accompanied by Parrot. We only meet Parrot for the first time after we meet Olivier, despite the fact we first meet him as a child, which is many years before Olivier’s story. Parrot – real name John Larrit – is a boy accompanying his father, an itinerant printer. They land up at Mr. Piggott’s where young Parrot’s duties including crawling up a secret chimney to a secret hiding place, where he must empty the chamber pot of Mr. Watkins, the engraver, as well as bring out packages of what Mr. Watkins has been doing, and supply Mr. Watkins with food. We have soon worked out – even if young Parrot has not – that Mr. Watkins is engaged in forging money. It all goes wrong and young Parrot manages to escape the wrath of the law and the burning house, only with the help of a mysterious, one-armed French aristocrat, the Marquis de Thibot. It is the much older Parrot who will, at the request of the Marquis de Thibot, accompany Olivier (as his servant) to the New World.

Much of the story concerns the adventures of Olivier and Parrot in the United States, as the title tells us. Olivier is based (loosely) on Alexis de Tocqueville. Like de Tocqueville, Olivier will nominally be doing a report on prisons in the United States but will also produce a report on democracy in that country, after travelling around the country. Olivier, of course, has Parrot as both his servant but also to spy on him and Parrot duly reports back. They have several fights but, as Parrot must be co-signer of Olivier’s letters of credit, Olivier cannot afford to alienate him too much and will, for example, get him out of prison. Parrot has left behind a wife and child in Australia (whither de Thibot had carried him and from whence he had torn him away) but has also acquired a wife (and mother-in-law) in France. His wife, Mathilde, is a creditable painter and it is she who links up with Mr. Watkins, who was badly burned in the Piggott fire but who has now become an Audubon-like artist, engraving fabulous paintings of birds. Olivier falls in love and has a variety of adventures on his travels, while Parrot, thanks to Mr. Watkins’ engravings, also does well for himself.

Carey’s style is the mock humorous style of the 18th century novel – think Smollett or, for a more modern pastiche of this style, The Sot-Weed Factor. This seems an easy style to carry off but it depends, partially, on a character that we can identify with, either a naïve abroad or a loveable rogue. Neither Parrot nor Olivier fit either of these moulds. Olivier is arrogant and obnoxious, Parrot boring and ordinary. As a result, Carey’s attempts at wit are not always successful and the humour of the novel is accordingly debased. It is a fascinating story but I think I preferred the original.

Publishing history

First published 2009 by Penguin