Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America is a fictional riff upon Alexis de Tocqueville’s trip to America in the early 19th century, from which resulted the classic Democracy in America. Olivier de Garmont is the character meant to be Tocqueville, an aristocrat with liberal leanings who is nevertheless an elitist snob.
Parrot is his servant, a man who has lived a colorful but frustrating life. An Englishman, he has had his life disrupted since he was a boy by another French aristocrat, the Marquis de Tilbot, who spirited him away from England after his father, a typesetter, was arrested as an accomplice to forgery.
In dangerous post-revolutionary France, Olivier’s mother has decided it would be wise for Olivier to leave the country, as his liberal leanings have offended the conservatives, but he is unacceptable to the liberals because of his aristocratic birth. She ends up shipping him off to America with Parrot as his secretary, on loan from Tilbot and instructed to report back Olivier’s movements.
But America inflames Parrot’s own democratic leanings. He believes himself to have a talent for engraving that he has never been able to develop while working as Tilbot’s servant, and he resents his status as a “vassal.” While Olivier feels that their rocky start has developed into a relationship that is almost love, Parrot affectionately? calls him “Lord Migraine.”
This novel is narrated in alternating chapters by Olivier and Parrot. It is entertaining–wittily and robustly written–although sometimes we seem to have stumbled into a Dickens novel, especially when reading about Parrot’s early life. In fact, I read recently that Carey wrote an earlier book, Jack Maggs, based on Magwich of Great Expectations, so that feeling is probably not too far off.