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Parrot and Olivier in America (2009)

by Peter Carey

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,685627,340 (3.5)170
"Olivier is a young aristocrat, one of an endangered species born in France just after the Revolution. Parrot, the son of an itinerant English printer, wanted to be an artist but has ended up in middle age as a servant. When Olivier sets sail for the New World - ostensibly to study its prisons, but in reality to avoid yet another revolution - Parrot is sent with him, as spy, protector, foe and foil. Through their adventures with women and money, incarceration and democracy, writing and painting, they make an unlikely pair. But where better for unlikely things to flourish than in the glorious, brand-new experiment, America? A dazzlingly inventive reimagining of Alexis de Tocqueville's famous journey, Parrot and Olivier in America brilliantly evokes the Old World colliding with the New. Above all, it is a wildly funny, tender portrait of two men who come to form an almost impossible friendship, and a completely improbable work of art" -- Back cover… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 62 (next | show all)
Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America was marketed as a comic novel based on the adventures of Alexis de Tocqueville, but it is something of a deliberate fraud on both counts. Olivier de Garmont certainly bears some resemblance to Tocqueville, but it quickly becomes clear that comparing them too carefully is a red herring. Olivier's story must be considered as an entity by itself, inhabiting a sort of parallel universe to Tocqueville's rather than a direct retelling (which makes sense: otherwise, why not just name the character Tocqueville?). Similarly, I was a little disappointed to find that, while Carey's writing is shot through with his usual sense of irony, Parrot and Olivier in America is not really a comic novel. Sure, there are moments when it sets out to satirize the past, especially the development of American democracy, in various ways, but it lacks any sort of laugh-out-loud passages that characterize the comic genre. You'll smile, but you won't laugh.

It took me a long time to warm to this book. In fact, I read it twice, several months apart, before I could decide that I actually liked it. Part of the problem came from my expectations that it *would* be a humorous novel, and I felt let down by the fact that it wasn't funny the first time through. Carey, however, is a complex novelist, and it took that second reading for me to see the deeper intricacies of what he was trying to do. If you've read some of Carey's other recent books, such as My Life as a Fake or His Illegal Self, you'll notice a recurring interest in two overlapping themes: the constructed nature of the self, and the possibilities for inauthenticity that arise from this condition. As such, Parrot and Olivier in America repeatedly deploys the intertwining notions of copying and the counterfeit, from the fake money manufactured by Parrot's father to the carbon paper that Parrot uses to duplicate Olivier's letters. Underneath this repeated symbolism is a political critique grounded in the thesis that the origins of democracy have themselves been counterfeited, allowing the political apparatus to be delivered into the hands of a new ruling class that uses a rhetoric of freedom and equality to cover up its own inherent injustices.

Although Carey delivers this message with deft subtlety, it is not hard to see why, for most readers, such a conclusion is going to touch a sore spot. It is a view that implicitly challenges some of the most basic assumptions about not only who we are as a society, but also certain cherished enlightenment ideas, particularly the notion that human beings naturally and instinctively desire freedom, one of the key foundations of democracy. Still, Carey's assessment is not grounded in a blind anti-Americanism: like his characters, like Tocqueville, he has seen America for himself (Carey teaches creative writing at New York's Hunter College), and this meticulously researched novel challenges the reader to reject the evasions and deceptions of democracy's birth from an empirical position rather than from mere cultural prejudice.

Parrot and Olivier in America is perhaps not Carey's best book, but it is a fine political novel of ideas that rewards patience and close attention. ( )
  vernaye | May 23, 2020 |
4.2 A great pleasure to read with magnificent word choice, sentences, and paragraphs. Full of the best of Carey, including the raw, outsized emotions, humor, and terrible joy that I was hoping for. The only imperfection is the ending, which just sort of trails off. In a perfect world Peter Carey would write a series of these books covering the noted gaps. Worth it for the opening Parrot chapter alone and as a spookily synchronous counterpoint to the Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. [b:The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet|7141642|The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet|David Mitchell|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1263923194s/7141642.jpg|7405757] ( )
  Eoin | Jun 3, 2019 |
At the beginning it seemed like it was going to be kind of a comical 18th century coming of age story like Tristram Shandy, but that changed as it went along. I can't decide if that is a strength or a weakness, but I like the book either way. ( )
  badube | Mar 6, 2019 |
Dislike!! A most tedious read. ( )
  Rdra1962 | Aug 1, 2018 |
Olivier is the son of French aristocrats who barely escaped execution during the French Revolution. When the situation in France once again becomes dangerous for members of the aristocracy, Olivier's parents manage to get him a commission to study the American penal system. Parrot is the son of an English engraver who, through a series of misfortunes, ended up in France as a servant of the Marquis de Tilbot. As a result of the Marquis's infatuation with Olivier's mother, Parrot is sent to America to keep tabs on Olivier and report back to the Comtesse. Parrot and Olivier alternately narrate their stories from their childhood to their voyage to America and their sojourns in New York and Connecticut.

This novel is loosely based on the life of Alexis de Tocqueville, author of Democracy in America, based on observations made during his travels in America. Both men struggle to embrace democracy early in their journey. Olivier has his aristocratic upbringing to overcome, while the middle-aged Parrot fears that he is too old to change his ways. I found Parrot the more sympathetic of the two men, and I think that was Carey's intention. It was Parrot who had the Australian connection. ( )
  cbl_tn | Sep 24, 2017 |
Showing 1-5 of 62 (next | show all)
"There are engaging, funny scenes throughout this picaresque tale, but the travelogue grows rickety and stalls too often."
added by bookfitz | editWashington Post, Ron Charles (Apr 28, 2010)
 
"Quirky and erudite, but the payoff in human-interest terms is meager."
added by bookfitz | editKirkus Reviews (Mar 1, 2010)
 
"But this conclusion in no way dampens this dashing novel – for it is in the testing of assumptions, in Garmont and Parrot's challenging of each other, that its beauty and intelligence lies."
 
The narrative proceeds in leaps and bounds, sometimes with a hop backwards, omitting connections, giving an impression above all, perhaps, of confusion – confusion of event and motive, incomprehension, a vast drama without structure. The language is vivid, forceful and poetic (though I wish Olivier's aristocratic locution was free of grammatical blunders such as "of she toward whom", "of she who I affected to be unaware of", "to he who I intended to make my father-in-law"). There are terrific set pieces, such as the burning of the forgers' house – moments Dickensian in their vividness. Themes of fire and burning run through the story. An early kind of bicycle appears, with much discussion and even an illustration, and later on an American bicycle enters the tale. Are there hidden significances? I don't know. It's a dazzling, entertaining novel. Should one ask for more?
added by zhejw | editThe Guardian, Ursula Le Guin (Jan 29, 2010)
 
"In the end, the novel’s richness can’t disguise the fact that the plot rather lags behind the ideas driving it. That said, it’s still one hell of a ride."
added by bookfitz | editThe Telegraph, John Preston (Jan 25, 2010)
 

» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Peter Careyprimary authorall editionscalculated
Montijn, HienTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
'Can it be believed that the democracy which has overthrown the feudal system and vanquished kings will retreat before tradesmen and capitalists?'

'It is not good to announce every truth.'

Alexis De Tocqueville
Dedication
For Frances Coady
First words
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.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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"Olivier is a young aristocrat, one of an endangered species born in France just after the Revolution. Parrot, the son of an itinerant English printer, wanted to be an artist but has ended up in middle age as a servant. When Olivier sets sail for the New World - ostensibly to study its prisons, but in reality to avoid yet another revolution - Parrot is sent with him, as spy, protector, foe and foil. Through their adventures with women and money, incarceration and democracy, writing and painting, they make an unlikely pair. But where better for unlikely things to flourish than in the glorious, brand-new experiment, America? A dazzlingly inventive reimagining of Alexis de Tocqueville's famous journey, Parrot and Olivier in America brilliantly evokes the Old World colliding with the New. Above all, it is a wildly funny, tender portrait of two men who come to form an almost impossible friendship, and a completely improbable work of art" -- Back cover

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