Saturday, May 29, 2010

American Pie

This appeared in today's The Indian Express

It’s an irony of history that an aristocrat from France was one of those one who provided Americans -- and the world -- with a theoretical underpinning of their brand of democracy. In the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, accompanied by his companion, Gustave de Beaumont, travelled to America to study their penal system. De Tocqueville found its people sufficiently fascinating to compose an entire book on their system of government and its implications titled, of course, Democracy in America.

This journey is the focal point of Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America. His improvised de Tocqueville is Olivier, an aristocrat-turned-Versailles lawyer; Beaumont is transformed into Parrot, a former printer’s devil from Devon, Olivier’s secretary and scribe.

This being a work by Peter Carey, one naturally expects doubles, shape-shifters, separate voices and wily inventiveness -- and all of these qualities are to be found in abundance. The narrative proceeds in alternating chapters told by Olivier and Parrot, the former high-flown, the latter demotic.

Parrot and Olivier in America teems with incident from the start, as Carey narrates with brio the events of the duo’s childhoods -- from Olivier's return to Paris with his family after the revolution, to Parrot’s mishaps at the house of a currency forger.

The two set sail for the New World, initially not getting along very well: Parrot refers to Olivier as “Lord Migraine” and the other returns the compliment by calling him “the retching varlet”. In time, there’s a grudging acceptance of each other qualities, which deepens into friendship. It is on the ship itself that Olivier formulates his plan to write about the country he is sailing to. As he writes,” the future of France will be found in their experiment and when the wave of democracy breaks over our heads, it will be best we know how to bend it to our ends rather than be broken by its weight”.

Upon disembarking, the two are plunged into a series of comic adventures as they travel across New York, Connecticut, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Discovering America through its citizens, they make alliances and alienate them; they fall in love and out of it; they decide to settle down and change their minds.

The account is studded with Olivier’s observations, some of which Carey states he’s cadged from Tocqueville’s book itself. The myopic aristocrat comes across as admiring democracy’s virtues, yet snobbishly alert to its flaws. He’s overwhelmed by the “feverish enthusiasm”: “they are ceaselessly tormented by the vague fear that they have failed to choose the shortest route (to prosperity)”. He wonders whether an absence of class boundaries would lead to upwardly-mobile posturing and also whether standards of art would suffer. Moreover, “the American habit of changing oneself from one thing to another…seems to be the national occupation”.

Though the core of the book is the relationship between Parrot and Olivier, there are patches during which this focus falters, such as Parrot’s account of his misadventures when deported to Australia. Perhaps this is what Carey hints at when he tells us right at the beginning of Olivier’s boyhood fascination with a tandem, a bicycle for two, which suffered from a lack of steering.

Fittingly, it is Parrot who takes more readily to America, with his garrulous voice drowning out Olivier, as is made clear in the dedication at the end. Parrot and Olivier in America, then, is a rambunctious, energetic novel, and even on the occasions that it seems over-inflated, it is Carey’s panache that keeps you reading.

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