Sunday 25 February 2018

Entertaining tribute to Alexis' adventures in America

Ronan Farren gives his vote to Carey's fanciful version of Tocqueville the fop

Ronan Farren

Parrot and Olivier in America

Peter Carey

Faber, €23.45

SUPPORT for the new-fangled concept of demo-cracy -- no monarchs, no aristocracy -- was an unlikely position for the French politician and historian Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859), himself of aristocratic background, but it is for his book Democracy in America that he is remembered. He also warned against paternalism in government and, if Peter Carey's picaresque novel, based in an engagingly fanciful way on Alexis' adventures in America, is to be believed, foresaw the curse of dumbing down and, to stretch it a bit, the rise of the presidents Bush.

Olivier de Garmont is Carey's fictional version of Tocqueville, a snobbish, petulant fop with little sense of humour, who must initially invite the reader's dislike. The other protagonist -- they alternate as first-person narrators -- is John Larrit, known as Parrot, an Englishman some 24 years older than Garmont who for a time is the Frenchman's servant. The upheavals of their relationship and Garmont's gradual emergence as a more thoughtful and dignified human being is the engine that drives the story, though the novel is one of manifold sub-plots and labyrinthine structure.

Garmont, in one of the upheavals that follows the French Revolution, is in some danger on the home ground and takes off for America with a companion to survey and report on the American penal system, while we first meet Parrot as a boy working with his father in a printing works in Devon. He too is forced to flee (the law has caught up with the factory's production of counterfeit French banknotes), leaving his father whom he will never see again.

So Olivier and Parrot have various adventures and misadventures, Parrot finding himself for a time in a penal colony in Australia, Olivier mourning the death of his closest friend in a duel and going through the motions of studying jails in America. The first meeting of the pair, in the house of a mysterious one-armed marquis, had not been propitious. Olivier surveys with distaste the marquis's "timeworn" servant "of an unsettling democratic grammar, a liveliness in the eye, a broadness of speech, an open curiosity which would certainly have excluded him from my mother's household."

Parrot is equally disdainful of Lord Migraine, as he privately takes to calling Garmont, when he's sent off to America to act as a spy and keep an eye on the unpredictable Olivier for his anxious mother. Olivier, as he dictates to Parrot a letter for his mother back in Paris, has little sympathy for his servant's feelings, referring to him in the letter as "a common clown whose fine calligraphy gives no inkling of his malevolence and criminality". Our sympathies are entirely with Parrot, a resourceful and amusing survivor who knows much more of life -- and the meaning of suffering -- than his master.

Peter Carey, Australia-born US resident, twice winner of the Booker Prize, builds his narrative with skill and subtlety, allowing us to observe Olivier's slowly evolving understanding of American ideas of democracy, moving from his position of obdurate hostility to a slightly painful acceptance. This is the snooty Olivier at an early stage of his American voyage of discovery:

"No matter how strong their religious sentiments, or their passion about the reform of criminals, the Americans quickly revealed themselves to be obsessed with trade and money and beyond the walls of that particular cell they simply could not see anything that diminished their enthusiasm for self-congratulation."

Later the often obtuse Olivier regrets the national manner of joking, where the main point was to make the visitor appear a fool. "And all this in the service of some ignorant notion of American superiority." But America does have its virtues, as he reflects favourably on the generosity of the people, and in particular on Amelia Godefroy from Connecticut, by whom he is smitten at first sight, her Viking blood a virtue among other aspects of this "straw-haired, blue-eyed, straight-backed, tall, strong ... goddess."

The transformation goes on. He even begins to declare love for his hosts and their nation, though he deplores the blot of slavery on their luminous constitution. But, "what enormous pleasure there was in walking down a good paved street in Massachusetts knowing no one was planning to chop off his head".

The path of love fails to run smoothly for the noble Garmont and toward the end of Parrot and Olivier in America the balance of power has shifted as the once-despised servant -- now a successful businessman -- is the one to rescue the once-supercilious master.

There's a lot going on in this funny, wise and thoroughly entertaining novel, full of well-drawn minor characters and sparkling dialogue. It's clearly deeply researched, but the author wears his learning lightly. It is a tribute, with some irony, to Alexis de Tocqueville: Carey has said that though he was only in the country for a short time, in the 1830s, he "got" America -- "he clearly sees the art-collecting hedge fund managers, the phantoms of Palin and the Bushes ... He creates an unexpected argument in the modern reader's mind."

The book also reads like Peter Carey's tribute, still with a leavening of irony, to his adopted country.

Sunday Independent

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