Parrot & Olivier by Peter Carey

Posted on: May 03, 2012

Previously published in The Herald magazine. 

Multiple award winner Peter Carey’s latest offering Parrot and Olivier in America is an odd epic that trots along amiably without ever clarifying what it’s really about. Perhaps it is about the relationship between a rich man and a poor one, master and servant; one young and immature, the other older and experienced. Of course they are each others foils – Olivier is a rich, foolish, vain, self indulgent snob, Parrot is everything but. Both have had very different lives but are forced to leave Europe together, and so begins a sort of ‘brass band burlesque’ journey to early America. 

Carey has clarified that Olivier is based on 19th century French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America is regarded as a great study of early settlements in the United States. For those who have read and know de Tocqueville, Carey’s epic story may ring true, albeit as shrill as a caricature. For those who are new to the historical references, the book may seem tedious and uneventful at times. Yes, there are journeys to far away lands, a motley crew of characters, vivid scenes of 19th centuryAmerica, lives lost and love gained, but eventually, it still feels like nothing much has happened. Of course Carey’s writing is marvelous – often a reader may forget that nothing has happened for a very long time…because even the nothing happens so eloquently.

Olivier has never known anything other than Parisian aristocracy, and when he travels toAmericato write about its penal system, he is further made absurd in comparison to the rougher lives of the settlers there. He is, at times, little more than simply ridiculous. Carey has great fun with Olivier’s fainting spells, his addiction to leeches and being bled, his morbid fear of things he has never known. As Parrot says, Olivier is from a family that ‘cannot imagine the life of anyone outside the circle of their [own] arse’. Meanwhile Parrot is described as ‘the sort of narrow eyed and haughty character on whose account one might wisely cross the road.’ Olivier is the joker; Parrot, the thief. 

In a series of flashbacks and conversations over the course of the book, Carey divulges Parrots colourful past. Initially adopted, in a way, by the mysterious one-armed Tilbot (who is many things: rogue, marauder and counterrevolutionary political manipulator), Parrot is eventually forced to be Olivier’s secretary so he can act as a spy for Olivier’s mother. It all may seem very cloak and dagger, but ends up playing out a bit predictably.

If Olivier is based closely on de Tocqueville, then Parrot is a character straight out of a Dickens novel. His personality, his speech, his mannerisms are Dickensian; he has had the most Dickensian of adventures – he’s been a ‘printer’s devil’, he’s been to Australia with a ship full of convicts, he’s etched flora for Queen Josephine and he’s far more interesting than his foil. Carey chooses to switch between Olivier and Parrot’s first person narrative in each chapter, but neither narrative fills in all the blanks and each has its very specific tint. As a result, the entire story is told in a sort of patchwork of biases. While this sort of narrative demands a very persistent and dedicated reader, it also creates much humour in conflicting opinions on the same episodes.

Not a single reviewer is able to get by without calling Parrot and Olivier a sweeping picaresque epic. Fans of the writer may feel he has been far less ruthless with his characters and his story than in his previous novels, but they will still be able to appreciate his craft, regardless of the existence of a few loose ends. It’s an impressionistic image of two men’s differing perspectives on life, love and each other, and their adventures in a new world they are yet to fully understand.