I had been a huge fan of Peter Carey ever since my mother forced me to read Oscar and Lucinda at the age of 16 and as I now found myself in his homeland of Australia I felt it was high time to revisit Carey’s work. I had previously read The True History of The Kelly Gang and Jack Maggs so this time opted for the enigmatically named Parrot and Olivier in America.
As with Oscar and Lucinda, the narrative alternates viewpoint chapter by chapter, switching from Olivier the aristocratic French lord, and Parrot, the son of a Devonshire printer. The book begins with what you may call a story of origins. It describes, in quite dazzling and intricate prose the young boy Olivier, a refugee from the revolution living in rural France. In the wake of Napoleon’s defeat he returns to Paris and the family attempts to return to the life they once had. On the other side of the channel, Parrot and his father find jobs at a printing house where Parrot is first taught the skill of engraving. Due to the more covert undertakings of the house however and the involvement of local authorities it is burned down, causing young Parrot to flee and set himself on a course, the details of which we discover at various intervals throughout the remainder of the novel. Skipping forward we find both men in Paris on the verge of another potential revolution. For his own safety more than the necessity of the task, Olivier is sent to America to undertake research about their prison system and its potential application in France. Not entirely pleased, Parrot accompanies the young aristocrat across the Atlantic.
What follows, as promised by the book’s cover is the tale of an unlikely friendship as they explore this new land and more than its penitentiary system, the importance and value it holds regarding art and the artist.
As this extended overview shows, the book has a hugely engaging plot. Charging through France and across England only to run up and down the East coast of America. The changes of place and the amount of travel allow the book to present a plethora of diverse characters each bringing varying degrees of character and caricature to the pages. This is first and foremost a humorous tale of adventure and discovery and indeed much of it was laugh out loud funny. Most of this humour stemming from the dynamic between its two titular characters. The down to earth, man of the world, toughness of Parrot coming up against Olivier’s blissfully unaware, pompous and self aggrandising demeanour creating a hugely entertaining double act. This has always been one of the huge successes of Peter Carey’s work. His ability to create characters and situations which are fun and gripping, fools the reader into thinking they have come across something lighter than they have. Pulled head first into the world he has created, it is not a struggle to wade through the issues and ideas he presents. Instead they come easily, naturally emerging from the stories he tells.
In the case of Parrot and Olivier, these ideas did emerge, although I’ll admit it took me a while to piece them all together. The story does set up very early on the discussions of art and artist, placing aesthetic merit on both sides of the class divide and asking the question of how this divide shapes decisions of what constitutes art. Throughout the novel these questions which link artistic worth to capital are raised as is the questions of whether taste is universal and autonomous to the structures of society. These questions allude in part to Kant’s principles of aesthetics but the ideas that I was most reminded of when reading were Bourdieu’s thoughts on ‘cultural capital’. The concept that aesthetic taste dictates how much status you had within society and can be used as a way to distance the aristocracy from the lower classes is apparent within the novel. There is a fantastic quote in the novel which highlights explicitly this relationship between art and class; “I have travelled widely. I have seen this country in its infancy. I tell you what it will become. The public squares will be occupied by an uneducated class who will not be able to quote a line of Shakespeare.” Although alluded to at the beginning, this is an idea which comes into full affect as the narrative moves through America and Olivier’s aristocratic sensitivities are shocked when confronted with a land of supposed democracy and equality. Where wealth carries more power than a good name.
Parrot too feels out of step with the new world at first. An enigmatic and worldly character, longing for ‘stasis’ and with enough of a dark Dickensian background to fit right into a Carey novel. He is on a few occasions explicitly and heartbreakingly laid bare. On one such instance, a discussion of the absence of a flaneur in America, his lack of creative accomplishments are brought to the fore. If Olivier represented the art collector of the old world, dictating taste and capital, Parrot was the artist of it. A flaneur rather than the proactive and in some cases destructive artist we see in America.
There are many other aspects of the novel to take away from it and to respond to as there is no specific or singular ‘message’ that the story delivers.This is one of the joys of Peter Carey, that his books are not necessarily ‘about’ anything but by telling stories about people and places they manage instead to be about a great deal. This book, so rooted as it is in geography is concerned with the creation of a new world. Not only in its main focus of America, but in the revolution left behind in Paris and its allusions to Botany Bay and of course Carey’s own context, there looms the shadow of Australia.
The book then tells of all forms of new world and it’s collisions with tradition and class. It tells a story of the whole concept of a supposed utopia, an image of principles of liberty and equality and how they can go awry. As with all his books Parrot and Olivier has grand ambitions and certainly manages to deliver on them but in a way which is not heavy or difficult but instead uproariously funny, heart-warming and as always beautifully engaging.