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The unusual life of Tristan Smith (original 1994; edition 1994)

by Peter Carey

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Member:TheWasp
Title:The unusual life of Tristan Smith
Authors:Peter Carey
Info:University of Queensland Press (1994), Unknown Binding, 422 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:***1/2
Tags:2012

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The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith by Peter Carey (1994)

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AWESOME! Love this book ( )
  velvetink | Mar 31, 2013 |
This is a very unusual story, which fortunately, is very well written.
When Tristan Smith is born, with deformities so severe people are repulsed when they look at him, he has three possible fathers, the handsome actor Bill, Wally the art director of the Feu Follet (Foo Follay) Circus which Tristan's mother owns and Vincent, whose wife is not Tristan's mother.
The story is based in the mythical country of Efica which is struggling to maintain it's identity against the cultural invasion of the neighbouring Voorstand.
We follow Tristan into young adulthood as he strives to achieve his dreams, supported by his unusual family. ( )
  TheWasp | Nov 19, 2012 |
A departure from Jack Maggs; think Geek Love, maybe, or A Prayer for Owen Meany. ( )
  sonyau | Jul 14, 2009 |
This book is an excellent read for anyone wanting to get the perspective of a society on the receiving end of imperialism and colonialism. It's a not-too-hidden take on a small country that has been colonized, culturally as well as physically, by a large superpower. Americans in particular would do well to read this to get a sense of the conflicting sentiments that American power and culture provokes in other societies.

The story itself is strange and wandering, but the overall effect is wonderful. ( )
  sabreader | Sep 7, 2006 |
A recent article in Canada's GLOBE AND MAIL referred to Peter Carey's THE UNUSUAL LIFE OF TRISTAN SMITH as "the best book ever written about U.S. cultural dominance over Canada, even if that's not what Carey had in mind." Once I read that, I knew I must find the book.
To my surprise, TRISTAN is far more than the above quote suggested (although it is accurate). Carey uses the cultural dominance of one fictional country over another as a launching pad for a terrific, semi-futuristic romp through the truly unusual life of Tristan Smith, an actor/juggler with more than a few problems.

Tristan is born and raised in Efica, a small, ignored colonial country that has been fighting a long battle to be free of the machinations of it's much larger neighbour and protector, Voorstand. (While Carey likely intended this as a metaphor to the relations of Australia and England [or New Zealand and Australia], the Canada/U.S. connection comes through loud and clear.) Tristan is born to an acting family, consisting of Felicity Smith (mother/actor), Bill (father/actor), Vincent (possible father/backer), and Wally (father figure/protector). It leads to much confusion and anarchy in Tristan's life, but it's nothing compared to his real handicap.

Tristan is deformed, in a way Carey refuses to clearly define, leaving it up to our imagination. He has translucent skin, mangled legs, malformed chest, no lips, and is quite small. Often, he refers to himself as a 'squid', if that helps in picturing his physique. He might have grown up to have his own life, but due to his dependance upon the kindness of others, he finds himself caught up in schemes and plans that soon lead to his being considered a traitor and possible liability by Voorstand authorities. It sounds confusing, but Carey moves the plot forward in an extremely logical fashion.

Being unable to function on his own, Tristan becomes the ultimate observer of life, and gains an understanding of human nature that may be ignored by its more active participants. But like humanity, Tristan longs to be loved, to be accepted, and when he inadvertently takes on the persona of a religious icon of Voorstand, he comes closer to his dream.

Carey must have realized that using real countries might alienate the reader, and has succeeded in creating two completely real fictional countries, both similar and distinctly different from our own. A religion, based on animals named Bruder Mouse, Bruder Duck, etc., has been devised to explain the increasingly bizarre behaviour of the citizens of both countries. Carey never goes into too much detail, allowing the reader to see the absurdity of the practices, and also pointing out the folly of our own beliefs. It reminded me of the astonishingly vague religion Philip K. Dick created for DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, a mish-mash of theories and modes that lends itself to the insanity of that paricular novel. TRISTIAN's religion involves lifelike cyborgs of animated characters, which run rampant through Voorstand, often bursting onto flames, yet adored and revered by the public. It is not so important that we understand it, as it is that the characters believe it.

There is also a political subplot that underlines the story, as Tristan's mother is an ardant and important supporter of Efica's Blue Party, a left wing organization that exists on a platform of increased freedom from Voorland's reach. This is contrary to the existing power of the Red Party, which is manipulated by Voorstand agents.

Carey's talent lies in never hitting the reader over the head with the metaphors. Like the best novels, it can be read simply for pleasure's sake. It is only upon reflection do the deeper themes emerge. The Voorstanders' inability and unwillingness to comprehend the ways of Efica, and the Eficans' intolerance yet love for the ways of Voorstand, is a theme that can find parallels in almost every country you can think of.

THE UNUSUAL LIFE OF TRISTAN SMITH is an intimate portrayal of one individual. It is a political allegory. It is a retelling of the Christ parable, on par with Robert Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. It is a particularly fine novel. ( )
1 vote ShelfMonkey | Aug 8, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0679760369, Paperback)

From a writer whom Thomas Keneally calls "one of the great figures on the cusp of the millennium" comes a novel that conjures an entire world that suggests our own, but tilted on its axis—a world whose most powerful country, Voorstand, dominates its neighbors with ruthless espionage and its mesmerizing but soul-destroying Sirkus.

Into that world comes Tristan Smith, a malformed, heroically willful, and unforgivingly observant child. Tristan's life includes adventure and loss, political intrigue, and a bizarre stardom in the Voorstand Sirkus, where animals talk and human performers die real deaths. The result is a visionary picaresque, staggering in its inventions, spellbinding in its suspense, and unabashedly moving.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:32:44 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

A satire on Australia and its relationship to the U.S. The protagonist is actor Tristan Smith, a dwarf. He is a citizen of Effica, a small country whose theater is overshadowed by Voorstand, a big country with a culture that dominates the world. The novel follows him to Voorstand where his father became a famous actor by selling his soul. Tristan, too, achieves fame, but his career is cut short when the Voorstand authorities declare him a subversive.… (more)

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