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On Sale: April 20, 2010
Pages: 400 | ISBN: 978-0-307-59301-6
Published by : Vintage Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Parrot and Olivier in America has been shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize.


From the two-time Booker Prize–winning author comes an irrepressibly funny new novel set in early nineteenth-century America.

Olivier—an improvisation on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville—is the traumatized child of aristocratic survivors of the French Revolution. Parrot is the motherless son of an itinerant English printer. They are born on different sides of history, but their lives will be connected by an enigmatic one-armed marquis.

When Olivier sets sail for the nascent United States—ostensibly to make a study of the penal system, but more precisely to save his neck from one more revolution—Parrot will be there, too: as spy for the marquis, and as protector, foe, and foil for Olivier.

As the narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, between their picaresque adventures apart and together—in love and politics, prisons and finance, homelands and brave new lands—a most unlikely friendship begins to take hold. And with their story, Peter Carey explores the experiment of American democracy with dazzling inventiveness and with all the richness and surprise of characterization, imagery, and language that we have come to expect from this superlative writer.


From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt

Olivier

i

I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable—slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the Château de Barfleur.

But consider this: Given the ferocity of my investigations, is it not half queer I did not come across my uncle’s célérifère?

Perhaps the célérifère was common knowledge in your own family. In mine it was, like everything, a mystery. This clumsy wooden bicycle, constructed by my uncle Astolphe de Barfleur, was only brought to light when a pair of itinerant slaters glimpsed it strapped to the rafters. Why it should be strapped, I do not know, nor can I imagine why my uncle—for I assume it was he—had used two leather dog collars to do the job. It is my nature to imagine a tragedy—that loyal pets have died for instance—but perhaps the dog collars were simply what my uncle had at hand. In any case, it was typical of the riddles trapped inside the Château de Berfleur. At least it was not me who found it and it makes my pulse race, even now, to imagine how my mother might have reacted if I had. Her upsets were never predictable. As for her maternal passions, these were not conventionally expressed, although I relished those occasions, by no means infrequent, when she feared that I would die. It is recorded that, in the year of 1809, she called the doctor on fifty-three occasions. Twenty years later she would still be taking the most outlandish steps to save my life.

...



My childhood was neither blessed nor tainted by the célérifère, and I would not have mentioned it at all, except—here it is before us now.



Typically, the Austrian draftsman fails to suggest the three dimensions.

However:

Could there be a vehicle more appropriate for the task I have so recklessly set myself, one that you, by-the-by, have supported by taking this volume in your hands? That is, you have agreed to be transported to my childhood where it will be proven, or if not proven then strongly suggested, that the very shape of my head, my particular phrenology, the volume of my lungs, was determined by unknown pressures brought to bear in the years before my birth.

So let us believe that a grotesque and antique bicycle has been made available to us, its wooden frame in the form of a horse, and of course if we are to approach my home this way, we must be prepared to push my uncle’s hobby across fallen branches, through the spinneys. It is almost useless in the rough ground of the woods, where I and the Abbé de La Londe, my beloved Bébé, shot so many hundreds of larks and sparrows that I bruised my little shoulder blue.

“Careful Olivier dear, do be careful.”

We can ignore nose bleeding for the time being, although to be realistic the blood can be anticipated soon enough—spectacular spurts, splendid gushes—my body being always too thin-walled a container for the passions coursing through its veins, but as we are making up our adventure let us assume there is no blood, no compresses, no leeches, no wild gallops to drag the doctor from his breakfast.

And so we readers can leave the silky treacherous Seine and cross the rough woodlands and enter the path between the linden trees, and I, Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a noble of Myopia, am free to speed like Mercury while pointing out the blurry vegetable garden on the left, the smudgy watercolor of orchard on the right. Here is the ordure of the village road across which I can go sailing, skidding, blind as a bat, through the open gates of the Château de Barfleur.

Hello Jacques, hello Gustave, Odile. I am home.

On the right, just inside, is Papa’s courthouse where he conducts the marriages of young peasants, thus saving them military service and early death in Napoleon’s army. It does not need to be said that we are not for Bonaparte, and my papa leaves the intrigues for others. We live a quiet life—he says. In Normandy, in exile, he also says. My mother says the same thing, but more bitterly. Only in our architecture might you glimpse signs of the powerful familial trauma. We live a quiet life, but our courtyard resembles a battlefield, its ancient austerity insulted by a sea of trenches, fortifications, red mud, white sand, gray flagstones, and fifty-four forsythias with their roots bound up in balls of hessian. In order that the courtyard should reach its proper glory, the Austrian architect has been installed in the Blue Room with his drawing boards and pencils. You may glimpse this uppity creature as we pass.

I have omitted mention of the most serious defect of my uncle’s vehicle—the lack of steering. There are more faults besides, but who could really care? The two-wheeled célérifère was one of those dazzling machines that are initially mocked for their impracticality until, all in a great rush, like an Italian footman falling down a staircase, they arrive in front of us, unavoidably real and extraordinarily useful.

The years before 1805, when I was first delivered to my mother’s breast, constituted an age of inventions of great beauty and great terror—and I was very soon aware of all of this without knowing exactly what the beauty or the terror were. What I understood was drawn solely from what we call the symbolic aggregate: that is, the confluence of the secrets, the disturbing flavor of my mother’s milk, my own breathing, the truly horrible and unrelenting lowing of the condemned cattle which, particularly on winter afternoons, at that hour when the servants have once more failed to light the lanterns, distressed me beyond belief.

But hundreds of words have been spent and it is surely time to enter that château, rolling quietly on our two wheels between two tall blue doors where, having turned sharply right, we shall be catapulted along the entire length of the long high gallery, traveling so fast that we will be shrieking and will have just sufficient time to notice, on the left, the conceited architect and his slender fair-haired assistant. On the right—look quickly—are six high windows, each presenting the unsettling turmoil of the courtyard, and the gates, outside which the peasants and their beasts are constantly dropping straw and fecal matter.

You might also observe, between each window, a portrait of a Garmont or a Barfleur or a Clarel, a line which stretches so far back in time that should my father, in the darkest days of the Revolution, have attempted to burn all the letters and documents that would have linked him irrevocably to these noble privileges and perils, he would have seen his papers rise from the courtyard bonfire still alive, four hundred years of history become like burning crows, lifted by wings of flame, a plague of them, rising into a cold turquoise sky I was not born to see.

But today is bright and sunny. The long gallery is a racetrack, paved with marble, and we swish toward that low dark door, the little oratory where Maman often spends her mornings praying.

But my mother is not praying, so we must carry our machine to visit her. That anyone would choose oak for such a device beggars belief, but my uncle was clearly an artist of a type. Now on these endless stairs I feel the slow drag of my breath like a rat-tail file inside my throat. This is no fun, sir, but do not be alarmed. I might be a slight boy with sloping shoulders and fine arms, but my blood is cold and strong, and I will swim a river and shoot a bird and carry the célérifère to the second floor where I will present to you the cloaked blindfolded figure on the chaise, my mother, the Comtesse de Garmont.

Poor Maman. See how she suffers, her face gaunt, glowing in the gloom. In her youth she was never ill. In Paris she was a beauty, but Paris has been taken from her. She has her own grand house on the rue Saint-Dominique, but my father is a cautious man and we are in exile in the country. My mother is in mourning for Paris, although sometimes you might imagine her a penitent. Has she sinned? Who would tell me if she had? Her clothes are both somber and loose-fitting as is appropriate for a religious woman. Her life is a kind of holy suffering existing on a plane above her disappointing child.

I also am sick, but it is in no sense the same. I am, as I often declare myself, a wretched beast.

Behold, the dreadful little creature—his head under a towel, engulfed in steam, and the good Bébé, who was as often my nurse as my tutor and confessor, sitting patiently at my side, his big hand on my narrow back while I gasped for life so long and hard that I would—still in the throes of crisis—fall asleep and wake with my nose scalded in the basin, my lungs like fish in a pail, grasping what they could.

After how many choking nights was I still awake to witness the pale light of dawn lifting the dew-wet poplar leaves from the inky waters of the night, to hear the cawing of the crows, the antic gargoyle torments of country life?

I knew I would be cured in Paris. In Paris I would be happy.

It was the Abbé de La Londe’s contrary opinion that Paris was a pit of vile miasmas and that the country air was good for me. He should have had me at my Catullus and my Cicero but instead he would drag me, muskets at the ready, into what we called the Bottom Hundred where we would occupy ourselves shooting doves and thrush, and Bébé would play beater and groundsman and priest. “You’re a splendid little marksman,” Bébé would say, jogging to collect our plunder. “Quam sagaciter puer telum conicit!” I translated. He never learned I was shortsighted. I so wished to please him I shot things I could not see.

My mother would wish me to address him as vous and l’Abbé, but such was his character that he would be Bébé until the day he died.

I was a strange small creature for him to love. He was a strong and handsome man, with snow-white hair and shrewd eyes easily moved to sympathy. He had raised my father and now I trusted myself entire to him, his big liver-spotted hands, his patient manner, the smell of Virginian tobacco which stained the shoulder of his cassock, and filled me with the atoms of America twenty years before I breathed its air. “Come young man,” he would say. “Come, it’s a beautiful day—Decorus est dies.” And the hail would be likely flailing your back raw and he would marvel, not at the cruel pummeling, but at the miracle of ice. Or if not the ice, then the wind—blowing so violently it seemed the North Sea itself was pushing up the Seine and would wash away the wall that separated the river from the bain.

The meek would not swim, but Bébé made sure I was not meek. He would be splashing in the deep end of the bain, naked as a broken statue—“Come on Great Olivier.”

If I became—against all that God intended for me—a powerful swimmer, it was not because of the damaging teachings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, but because of this good priest and my desire to please him. I would do anything for him, even drown myself. It was because of him that I was continually drawn away from the awful atmosphere of my childhood home, and if I spent too many nights in the company of doctors and leeches, I knew, in spite of myself, the sensual pleasures of the seasons, the good red dirt drying out my tender hands.

And of course I exaggerate. I lived at the Château de Barfleur for sixteen years and my mother was not always to be found lying in her pigeonhole with the wet sheet across her eyes. There was, above my father’s locked desk, a large and lovely pencil portrait of my maman, as light as the dream of a child that was never to be born. Her nose here was perhaps a little too narrow, a trifle severe, but there was such true vitality in the likeness. She showed a clear forehead, a frank expression, inquiring eyes that directly engaged the viewer, and not only here, but elsewhere—for there would be many nights in my childhood when she would rise up from her bed, dress herself in all her loveliness, and welcome our old friends, not those so recently and swiftly elevated, but nobles of the robe and sword. To stand in the courtyard on these evenings with all the grand coaches out of sight behind the stables, to see the fuzzy moon and the watery clouds scudding above Normandy, was to find oneself transported back to a vanished time, and one would approach one’s grand front door, not speeding on a bicycle, but with a steady slippered tread and, on entering, smell, not dirt or cobwebs, but the fine powder on the men’s wigs, the lovely perfumes on the ladies’ breasts, the extraordinary palette of the ancien régime, such pinks and greens, gorgeous silks and satins whose colors rose and fell among the folds and melted into the candled night, and on these occasions my mother was the most luminous among the beautiful. Yet her true beauty—evanescent, fluttering, deeper and more grained than in the pencil portrait—did not reveal itself until the audience of liveried servants had been sent away. Then the curtains were drawn and my father made the coffee himself and served his peers carefully, one by one, and my mother, whose voice in her sickbed was thin as paper, began to sing:

A troubadour of Béarn,
His eyes filled with tears . . .


At this moment she was not less formal in her manner. Her slender hands lay simply on her lap, and it was to God Himself she chose to reveal her strong contralto voice. I have often enough, indiscreetly it seems now, publicly recalled my mother’s singing of “Troubadour Béarnais,” and as a result that story has gained a dull protective varnish like a ceramic captive in a museum which has been inquired of too often by the overly familiar. So it is that any tutoyering bourgeois and his wife can know the Comtesse de Garmont sang about the dead king and cried, but nothing would ever reveal to them Olivier de Garmont’s fearful astonishment at his mother’s emotions, and—God forgive me—I was jealous of the passion she so wantonly displayed, this vault of historic feeling she had hidden from me. Now, when I must remain politely at attention beside my father’s chair, I had to conceal my emotion while she gave away a pleasure that was rightly mine. Our guests cried and I experienced a violent repugnance at this private act carried out in public view.

His eyes filled with tears,
Sang to his mountain people
This alarming refrain:
Louis, son of Henri,
Is captive in Paris.


When she had finished, when our friends remained solemnly still, I walked across the wide rug to stand beside her chair and very quietly, like a scorpion, I pinched her arm.

Of course she was astonished, but what I remember most particularly is my wild and wicked pleasure of transgression. She widened her eyes, but did not cry out. Instead she tossed her head and gave me, below those welling eyes, a contemptuous smile.

I then walked, very coolly, to my bed. I had expected I would weep when I shut my door behind me. Indeed, I tried to, but it did not come out right. These were strange overexcited feelings but they were not, it seemed, of the sort that would produce tears. These were of a different order, completely new, perhaps more like those one would expect in an older boy in whose half-ignorant being the sap of life is rising. They seemed like they might be emotions ignited by sinful thoughts, but they were not. What I had smelled in that song, in that room full of nobles, was the distilled essence of the Château de Barfleur which was no less than the obscenity and horror of the French Revolution as it was visited on my family. Of this monstrous truth no honest word had ever been spoken in my hearing.

My mother would now punish me for pinching her. She would be cold, so much the better. Now I would discover what had made this smell. I would go through her bureau drawers when she was praying. I would take the key to the library. I examined the papers in my father’s desk drawers. I climbed on chairs. I sought out the dark, the forbidden, the corners of the château where the atmosphere was somehow most dangerous and soiled, well beyond the proprieties of the library, beyond the dry safe wine cellar, through a dark low square portal, into that low limitless dirty dark space where the spiderwebs caught fire in the candlelight. I found nothing—or nothing but dread which mixed with the dust on my hands and made me feel quite ill.

However, there is no doubt that Silices si levas scorpiones tandem invenies—if you lift enough rocks, you will finally discover a nest of scorpions, or some pale translucent thing that has been bred to live in a cesspit or the fires of a forge. And I do not mean the letters a certain monsieur had written to my mother which I wish I had never seen. It was, rather, beside the forge that I discovered the truth in some humdrum little parcels. They had waited for me in the smoky gloom and I could have opened them any day I wished. Even a four-year-old Olivier might have reached them; the shelf was so low that our blacksmith used it to lean his tools against. One naturally assumed these parcels to be the legacy of a long-dead gardener—dried seeds, say, or sage or thyme carefully wrapped for a season some Jacques or Claude had never lived to see. By the time I pushed my snotty nose against them, which was a very long time after the night I pinched my mother, they still exuded a distinct but confusing smell. Was it a good smell? Was it a bad smell? Clearly I did not know. Not even Montaigne, being mostly concerned with the smell of women and food, is prepared to touch on this. He ignores the lower orders of mold and fungus, death and blood, all of which might have served him better than his ridiculous assertion that the sweat of great men—he mentions Alexander the Great—exhaled a sweet odor.
Peter Carey|Author Q&A

About Peter Carey

Peter Carey - Parrot and Olivier in America

Photo © Laura Wilson

PETER CAREY is the author of twelve previous novels and has twice received the Booker Prize. His other honors include the Commonwealth Writers' Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Born in Australia, he has lived in New York City for the past twenty years.


Peter Carey is represented by Random House Speakers Bureau (http://www.rhspeakers.com).

Author Q&A

What was your starting point for Parrot and Olivier in America?
 
I might say, “Reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America,” but in fact it began before that—years of hearing how Americans quote Tocqueville. If one were to rely on these snippets, one would think that Tocqueville fell head over heels in love with this new Democracy, that he “got” America.
 
Of course, he was in his twenties and was only here for a very short time. It’s impossible, you would think, that he “got” everything. He was a child of traumatized survivors of the French Revolution. He had good reason to fear the mob and the rule of the majority. You might think he had no chance of getting anything. But to read Democracy in America, the reader will be astonished to see that did indeed “get” America, although in a much more complicated way   than common quotation suggests.
 
It is eerie, really, to see him fearing the dumbing down of society and the devastating conjunction of capitalism and culture. He is looking at the USA in the 1830s, but he clearly sees the phantoms of Palin and the Bushes.
 
He also thought it was impossible to create culture in a democracy without a leisured and educated class, and he is obviously wrong and less obviously right. He creates an argument in the modern reader’s mind—indeed, I conceived the novel as a kind of argument.  In creating Parrot, the son of an itinerant printer, I was inventing someone much closer to my own cultural history. Parrot is that exotic impossible thing, the working class artist.
 
 
How closely did you go back to reading de Tocqueville work and specifically Democracy in America? And in taking on this figure as inspiration, did you feel any difficulty in moving away from the historical, factual records?
 
I read a great deal around my subject. In the end this does not matter too much, but people who are interested in this sort of thing can find it on my website (www.petercareybooks.com). As for Democracy in America, I read it closely in my own magpie way. People who know Tocqueville will find some of his lines woven into Olivier’s narration. When you stumble across anything dismissive or snobbish about America, that bit came from Tocqueville. These are the lines that have been forgotten in Washington and elsewhere. That is not to say there is not a love affair with America (and a particular American). Indeed there is, and it is cerebral and physical and always passionate.
 
As for the historical record, I wanted to be fastidious in one way and reckless in another. I wanted to signal to those who know the territory that my departures from known history were informed choices. For instance, Tocqueville travelled with Beaumont and wrote a report on prisons with him. My Beaumont figure is called Blacqueville and I had him killed off in Le Havre before the journey started. I think that this is a clear sign that we are dealing with fiction.  I was much more interested in expressing and testing ideas through the conflict and odd friendship with his very independently-minded, completely fictional servant.
 
 
You did some very diligent, detailed research on de Tocqueville—such as working with a French architectural historian to see detailed plans of his home in France. Yet you changed much of this detail in the book so that it doesn’t correspond to the historical record.  Why?
 
It was overwhelming, at first, to set about imagining Olivier, my aristocrat. What was it like to live in that time, to be a child living in a chateau? We imagine a modern house easily enough, but I had no clue how a character like Olivier might live. As the character had his origins in Tocqueville, I set out to find out about one of Tocqueville’s houses at Verneuil, near Paris. I found a wonderful French architectural historian, who visited the chateau—which is now a convent and not open to the public. He took photographs, and most important of all, he drew maps and plans so I could understand the principle of the place: the pigeon loft, the library, the orchard, and the relationship with the river. It was so exciting to understand. So then, of course, I came to write the novel, not about Tocqueville but about my Olivier, and then I built his chateau for him using all the knowledge I had gathered from Jean Marc Devocelle, the historian. I could change a color, shift a door, place the Seine in a slightly different relationship to the house. Thus the Chateau de Garmont was created, and exists only in my book for which it was, can we say, purpose-built?
 
 
As an adoptive New Yorker, how much do the characters’ views on America relate to your own? And have your views on America changed significantly over the 20-odd years you’ve lived there?
 
Well, I’m an American citizen and the father of two American sons. But I am also the citizen of another country—Australia. I’m one of those New Yorkers with their hearts in two places. So no matter how familiar America (or at least New York) becomes to me, there is a huge part of it that appears to be alien and mad. Both these things increase side by side, a huge fondness and a kind of terror.
 
I have spent 20 years explaining to my New York friends that America is in no way like Australia, so I was rather astonished to realize, in studying Tocqueville’s visit and its consequences, just how much it paralleled a certain aspect of Australian historical experience—by that I mean the insecure and boastful nature of the New World when showing itself to the Old World. It’s sometimes hard to remember the extremely radical nature of American Democracy, this nation without kings, and it was startlingly familiar for this Australian to see these proud republicans seeking the approval of an aristocrat. I never felt so at home in all my life.
 
 
What parallels do you think can be drawn with more recent American administrations?
 
Tocqueville saw them coming. You see him fretting at the circumstances that lead to a Palin—a woefully undereducated populace, a press that caters to fear and ignorance, a potential leader who can represent that mediocrity and ignorance, can hold up a mirror to the voters and therefore be popular. This is his nightmare—in 1831 he wrote to France from Yonkers, “they believe in the wisdom of the masses provided they are enlightened, and they don't suspect that there is a certain instruction which can never be the lot of the masses and which may nevertheless be necessary to govern a state.”  Of course, many Americans of 1830 had high hopes for education, but we seem to have abandoned that. An informed electorate would be a beautiful thing to see.
 
 
Any parallels with our subprime crisis?
 
It is perhaps no accident that a reviewer in Dubai got this absolutely. Can I be lazy and quote her? “Carey’s depiction of America isn’t all wholesome: a New York banker who sells a house on credit to Parrot’s lover, though she has neither job nor money, provides a clear premonition of the subprime crisis.” Thank you, Gaiutra Bahadur. Also, the modern reader might like to note that the last words of the book are May 10, 1837. A quick Google will highlight the contemporary parallel.
 
 
Do you think that this is a novel that you could only write now?
 
Well, I’ve been thinking about Tocqueville for a long time now, but I held back. Why? Perhaps due to a sense that it was beyond me. In hindsight, I see that fearfulness has always been an extremely positive sign for me. It was true of both my Booker Prize novels (Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang), the terrifying big idea which only finally gets explored because it will not go away.
 
 
How have readers in different countries reacted to the book’s themes?
 
I’ve seen individual Americans despise the snobbish Olivier, and English readers feel very fond of him. The English engage with the master-servant relationship in a more powerful way than I had expected. My early French readers seem to have been interested and amused, and have not yet questioned my right to mess with their history. And in Australia, where Tocqueville is not a figure of historical consequence, where one cannot expect anyone to give a damn about anything but the success or failure of what exists inside the covers, the reviews have been almost uniformly good. That is a category all of its own—too many different readers for me to simplify their responses, and the very pleasant sound of turning pages.


Do you hope Americans to take anything specific from the novel?  If so, what?
 
Well, there’s the question of how we create and maintain culture in a capitalist democracy. How we can have any culture that is not swamped by the demands of corporations. Tocqueville wrote: “We have a motley crowd whose intellectual needs crave satisfaction. These new enthusiasts for the pleasures of the mind have not all received the same education….The citizens have no shared intellectual links, traditions, or culture with each other and they have had neither the power or the will or the time to fund a common understanding. Authors emerge from the heart of this disparate and turbulent crowd which then dispenses profit and reputation to them.”  I wish this did not seem so horribly familiar.
 
 
You head the MFA in Creative Writing program at Hunter College—now the most selective in New York City and tenth most selective in the country. (Congratulations!) You’ve been there for 7 years now—what do you like so much about teaching?  Do you think it has made you a better writer?
 
Oh yes. To teach a workshop you have to inhabit a student’s story. You have to not only get past the tangle and confusion, but also find its heart. You are, in that moment, placing yourself in the student’s shoes. You are being the student, understanding what the student wants, but you are also the teacher, the guide, trying to figure out and then explain how they can get to their destination. You must be empathetic, supportive, critical, technical, historical. In leading them through their own maze you use all your own resources and strengthen yourself while you teach them.
 
 
Your first novel, Bliss, is now an Opera in Australia (and will travel to Edinburgh and Hamburg as well).  What is it like to see your creation on the page turned into a staged and sung performance?  How does it compare to having your book made into a movie, as with Oscar and Lucinda?
 
I don’t regard the opera or the film as being mine at all. In each case I have been delighted that I have written something that has made another artist want to make something in another form. My feeling is, I have made a vase. Now you have to break it, to grind it up, to use its clay to make what you want to make. I had the right to fail when I wrote my books. I give you the right to fail. I hope you succeed.  So when I see the film or see the opera I am not at all worried if the work is faithful. Fidelity is impossible. A book is made of ink and paper. A film is made of light and electricity. So, I suppose you could say I am flattered and excited, but my book is still my book and an opera or a film will not improve or diminish a single sentence.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“As big and bold as [America] itself. . . . Carey at his finest. . . . He is a sheer magician with language.” —The Miami Herald

“A brass-band burlesque of literature and history. . . .Provokes a reader’s delighted applause. . . . Matchlessly robust.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Outrageous and witty. . . .Another feat of acrobatic ventriloquism, joining Carey’s masterpieces, Jack Maggs and True History of the Kelly Gang.” –The Washington Post
 
“Gorgeously entertaining and moving. . . . This is a novel of fierce attachments, charting the proximity of beauty and terror in the human soul.” —O, The Oprah Magazine
 
“Delicious. . . .A comic historical picaresque. . . .[This] book has an eighteenth-century robustness, a nineteenth-century lexicon, and a modern liberality.” –James Wood, The New Yorker
 
“Re-imagines Alexis de Tocqueville’s American journey with a verve that is nothing short of captivating. . . . A rollicking debate about America and its opportunities, its society and class distinctions.” —The Denver Post
 
“Carey is as various, often as brilliant, and always as irreverent as they come.” –The Boston Globe
 
“An exuberant, entertaining, incisive novel, full of attitude and incident.” —Dallas Morning News
 
“Amusing and wise and graceful to a degree that we almost don’t deserve.” —Salon
 
“An energetically intelligent novel. . . . It bristles like a hedgehog with all of Carey’s spiky ideas. . . . There’s enough to snag your imagination on, and to spare.” —The Christian Science Monitor
 
“Carey braids his story carefully, lovingly. . . .At its heart, Parrot and 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.” –Los Angeles Times
 
Parrot and Olivier [is]. . . . Peter Carey’s celebration of his marvelous discovery of how to write about—this time around—our own past.” —San Francisco Chronicle
 
“A dazzling, entertaining novel. . . . The language is vivid, forceful and poetic.” —The Guardian (London)
 
“Parrot offers Carey an excellent occasion to create swaggering 19th century brogue—and a new vantage to explore the transformative power of America.” —Chicago Tribune
 
“Peter Carey is one of today’s best writers of literary historical fiction. . . . The novel is full of lush detail, period lingo, and plenty of Dickensian coincidence and excitement.” —The Charlotte Observer
 
“Extraordinarily allusive and joyously inventive. The numerous themes are spiced with his gutsy carnality. . . . A great deal of pleasure.” —The Daily Telegraph (London)
 
“Cranks its energy, like Don Quixote, out of the friction between two antipodal characters. . . . Hums with comic adventure.” —New York Magazine
 
“A comic, well-observed and meticulously crafted narrative. . . . Carey deftly and humorously brings debate into the narrative but seamlessly and organically within an immersive depiction of life 180 years ago.” —Buffalo News
 
“One assumes it was no simple thing for Peter Carey to give birth to this masterful, sprawling epic. But oh, the reader is so pleased that the effort succeeded.” —Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
 
“Even fuller than its predecessors of allusion, contrast, and comic contradiction. . . . It demands and repays repeated reading.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
 
“Exquisitely written. . . . It’s a surprising, stimulating, sad, and side-splitting deconstruction of social class, no less ‘real’ because it springs from Carey’s imagination.” —Tulsa World
 
“Elegant prose conveys the newness of America. . . . As usual with Carey, echoes of Dickens resound.” —Bloomberg News
 
“Smart, charming and original. . . . [Carey] finds comedy in unexpected places.” —NPR.org

Awards

FINALIST 2010 Man Booker Prize
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

The introduction, discussion questions, and suggested further reading that follow are designed to enhance your group’s discussion of Parrot and Olivier in America, the new novel, loosely based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, by two-time winner of the Booker Prize and bestselling author Peter Carey.

About the Guide

A tour de force of historical improvisation and vocal acrobatics, Peter Carey’s new novel looks at postrevolutionary France and America through the eyes of two unforgettable narrators: Olivier and Parrot. The result is a vivid counterpoint and two wildly divergent perspectives on the same tumultuous period. It is also the story of a most unlikely friendship between a French lord and an English servant.
 
Olivier de Garmont is the scion of a noble family, Parrot the son of an itinerant printer. As the novel begins, Olivier’s family has retreated to Normandy in the wake of the French Revolution and the Terror of 1793. Olivier is a sickly, sensitive child, and when he stumbles upon an engraving of Louis XVI being beheaded, he is forever after haunted by the guillotine. Olivier grows up to become a lawyer and to develop liberal views that put him at odds with the restored monarchy. To keep him out of harm’s way, his family ships him off to America, where he is tasked to write a book on America’s prison system.

The childhood of John Larrit, also known as Parrot because of his talent for mimicry, is even more perilous. He barely survives when he and his father are rousted out of a printer’s house engaged in producing counterfeit paper money for Monsieur de Tilbot, the one-armed marquis who fiercely resisted the revolution and who is a close friend of Olivier’s mother. Tilbot saves Parrot but also turns him into his servant, thus beginning a role of deference and self-denial that will ensnare Parrot for many years to come. It is through the Marquis de Tilbot that Olivier’s and Parrot’s fates will intersect, when Olivier’s mother enlists the Marquis, and the Marquis in turn enlists Parrot to protect—and spy on—Olivier in America.

Both Parrot and Olivier are profoundly affected by the democratic leveling of class distinctions they find in America. Olivier is alternately repulsed and fascinated, disdainful and admiring of the new democracy, while Parrot, after drifting aimlessly, finally finds the freedom he’s been denied all his life. By showing us their reactions to the fledging democracy, Carey gives readers a visceral sense of just how thrilling and baffling a place America could be for new arrivals from Europe—and how unsettling of old-world social conventions. The typical relationship between servant and master is gradually subverted as Parrot and Olivier move from mutual contempt to genuine affection and friendship.
The novel is filled with subtle parallels between America in the early decades of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first. Olivier is appalled, for example, by the wanton destruction of America’s eastern forests and the national obsession with acquiring wealth: “It is strange, in New York and Philadelphia, to see the feverish enthusiasm which accompanies Americans’ pursuit of prosperity and the way they are ceaselessly tormented by the vague fear that they have failed to choose the shortest route to achieve it” (page 237)—an observation as accurate today as it was 170 years ago.

Written with Peter Carey’s unmistakable narrative brilliance, Parrot and Olivier is a historical novel in the best sense of the term: it inhabits a historical era with utter accuracy and authenticity but in doing so holds a mirror up to our time as well.

About the Author

Peter Carey is the author of ten previous novels—including Oscar and Lucinda, True History of the Kelly Gang, and Theft—and has twice received the Booker Prize. His other honors include the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and the Miles Franklin Literary Award. Born in Australia, he now lives in New York City. You may visit him online at petercareybooks.com.

Discussion Guides

1. Why does Carey choose to let Parrot and Olivier narrate their own stories? What makes their narrative voices so distinctive and engaging? What would be lost if the novel were told from a single perspective or by an omniscient narrator?

2. In what ways are Parrot and Olivier uniquely positioned to represent the huge social changes that were sweeping across Europe and America during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries?

3. As he arrives in America, Olivier remarks that “the coast of Connecticut was the most shocking monument to avarice one could have ever witnessed, its ancient forests gone, smashed down and carted off for profit” (page 144). What other instances of American greed does he observe? What is the irony of a French aristocrat being appalled by the greed given free rein by American democracy?

4. Carey’s prose style in Parrot and Olivier in America is vivid, richly metaphoric, and often extravagantly sensuous. When Parrot and Mathilde make up after a fight, for example, Parrot writes that her “hands were dragging at my clothes and her upturned face was filled with cooey dove and tiger rage. Her mouth was washed with tears. I ate her, drank her, boiled her, stroked her till she was like a lovely flapping fish and her hair was drenched and our eyes held and our skins slid off each other and we smelled like farm animals, seaweed, the tanneries upriver” (page 148). What are the pleasures of such writing? Where else in the novel does the writing reach this pitch of overflowing metaphor?

5. What does Olivier find to be the most appealing characteristics of America’s fledgling democracy? What does he find most baffling?

6. Olivier is loosely based on Alexis de Tocqueville, the French aristocrat and author of the classic Democracy in America. In what ways does Olivier resemble De Tocqueville? In what ways does Carey depart from the historical figure to create his own character?

7. How do Parrot and Olivier initially regard each other? What are the major turning points that lead to their unlikely friendship? Why is their friendship possible only in America?

8. At the end of the novel, Olivier argues that America’s young democracy “will not ripen well,” that it will suffer the “tyranny of the majority” (page 378), and that the American people prefer their leaders to be just as undereducated as they are. He goes on to tell Parrot: “You will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals . . .” (page 380). Parrot attributes Olivier’s harsh judgment to being heartbroken and having suffered as “a child of the awful guillotine” (page 380). But to what extent have Olivier’s predictions come true? In what ways can this passage be read as a sly commentary on recent presidents and the sorry state of the press in America?

9. How are Olivier and Parrot differently affected by the leveling of class distinctions in America? Does Parrot benefit from being in America?

10. Why does Amelia break off her engagement to Olivier? Does she make the right decision? Is Olivier better off without her?

11. Of the banker Peek’s mortgage loan to Mathilde, Parrot says: “For Peek had played Shylock with her, himself lending her the capital and loading her to breaking point with every type of extra fee, compulsory insurance, brokerage, advance payments on taxes I am still sure that he invented” (page 272). How surprising is it to see this version of today’s housing boondoggles played out in the 1830s? What is the significance of these schemes having such a long history?

12. After he discovers that Mathilde, Eckerd, and Watkins have burned down their house for insurance money, Parrot exclaims, “You are scoundrels, all of you.” To which Mathilde replies, “We are artists. We have a right to live” (page 314). Is Parrot right to call them scoundrels? Or is Mathilde’s point of view the more sympathetic one?

13. What are some of the funniest moments in Parrot and Olivier in America? What makes Carey’s writing so humorous?

14. What does the novel add to our knowledge of the early period of American democracy by seeing it through the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier? In what ways does the era described in the novel mirror our own?


(For a complete list of available reading group guides, and to sign up for the Reading Group Center e-newsletter, visit www.readinggroupcenter.com.)

Suggested Readings

Russell Banks, Cloudsplitter; T. C. Boyle, The Road to Wellville; E. L. Doctorow, Ragtime; Charles Frazier, Cold Mountain; Sena Jeter Naslund, Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette; Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America; Mark Twain, Roughing It; Émile Zola, Germinal

  • Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
  • January 11, 2011
  • Fiction; Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $15.95
  • 9780307476012

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