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Peter Carey: The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

Tristan Smith, the hero of this novel, was born in the fictitious Third World country of Efica. They are always comparing themselves to the citizens of their great neighbors, Voorstand, which reminds me of South Africa as, no doubt, it is intended to do but also of the United States. Tristan’s mother was born a Voorstander and changed her name from the obvious Afrikaans name of Smutts to Smith. At the time of Tristan’s birth, Felicity Smith was working for a radical theatre group called Feu Follet. Tristan was born at the end of rehearsals for Macbeth or, as a good theatrical person, he calls it The Scottish Play. Felicity is in love with Bill Millefleur but Bill is not necessarily the father of Tristan. Indeed, there were two other claimants.

This book is Tristan’s. He starts the narration from before his birth, continues through his birth and onwards. Tristan, however, is deformed – a cracked and mended pot of flesh. Indeed, if you are thinking Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum), so was I. Tristan is not exactly Oskar Matzerath, but there are considerable similarities, not least of which is the narrative style. What makes Oskar and his book so great is his observation of the changing political and personal world around him and Tristan gives us the same sort of picture. There is, of course, no world war on the horizon but, from his hiding place, Tristan is able to see not only his mother and her friends and the circus but also keeps an eye on the petty politics of Efica and its neighbor, Voorstand. Of course, things change as they are wont to do and Tristan and his mother move on. He loses his mother, seeks out his father and makes his fame and fortune. How he does all this, it is Carey’s gift to tell us in his usual entertaining manner for Tristan, though a deformed circus performer from Efica is also Herbert Badgery and Oscar and other Carey heroes whose riotous picaresque travels not only keep us amused but also tell us much about the human condition.

Publishing history

First published 1994 by Faber and Faber