Blurring boundaries

Blurring boundaries

In the 1830s, with post-revolution France wending its tumultuous way towards rule by the people, the aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville visited America where democracy had already found its feet. The result was the classic of political science and anthropology, Democracy in America, in which Tocqueville explored the very particular conditions and attitudes that shaped American democracy with its emphasis on individualism and liberty. Imagining the circumstances under which America might one day come to despotism, he saw an “innumerable multitude of men, alike and equal, constantly circling around in pursuit of the petty and banal pleasures with which they glut their souls.” They would have a powerful government above them that would try “to keep them in perpetual childhood.”

It may be that in the recent past this bleak vision has not been too far away from becoming visitation, and it is perhaps this that has prompted a resurgence of interest in Tocqueville. The last 10 years or so have produced at least three new translations of Democracy in America and a bunch of books on Tocqueville’s life. Joining them is Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America, an improvisation — as the back cover puts it — of Tocqueville’s time in America and a novelistic exploration of his mixed feelings about American democracy.

Olivier de Garmot (the novel’s Tocqueville stand-in) is the son of nobles who have narrowly escaped the guillotine during the terrors of the French revolution. The family lives in their chateau, quietly supporting the royals, longing to return to Paris, which they do eventually. Olivier grows into a pampered and sickly young man, asthmatic, myopic (at least ocularly), prone to nosebleeds, and partial to his jar of leeches. He is conflicted intellectually — he is a noble by blood and instinct, but he also believes in the egalitarian values of the Enlightenment. In his mid-twenties, Olivier is in Paris and in da
nger of his life after being seen to be supporting the wrong royals. His parents pack him off to America despite his protestations.

Olivier’s travelling companion is Parrot. Parrot, the son of a roving English printer, was separated from his father as a child and taken up by a roguish one-armed French nobleman who happens to be a friend (and perhaps more) of Olivier’s mother. Parrot is quick and independent-minded, but compulsively servile. Over the years he has remained a loyal servant to his benefactor despite being bitter about his lot, and when asked to accompany Olivier to America, he agrees grudgingly.

The novel proceeds through alternating narratives from Olivier and Parrot, a structure deftly handled by Carey, and one that allows perspectives from both protagonists and from both sides of their class divide.

Mutual loathing

Olivier and Parrot set sail for America with mutual loathing. To Olivier, Parrot is a “common clown,” and to Parrot, the trouble with people like ‘Lord Migraine’ is that “they cannot imagine the life of anyone outside the circle of their ass.” But America begins to change their relationship, and soon they are more friends than master and servant.
Olivier, who is visiting America ostensibly to study the prison system, begins taking an interest in the people. “All is vulgarity and ostentation” about them, they are “obsessed with trade and money” and have an “enthusiasm for self-congratulation.” The aristocrat sees “the nightmare of democracy — the fishwife taken to be a great lady, the banker strutting as a noble lord” and is appalled. In short: “All this malodorous égalité depressed me awfully.”

But Olivier manages to see the other side of America too with some help from a woman he is courting. She is beautiful and forthright, and Olivier is smitten by the grace with with she wears her freedom. Now on the inside, Olivier notices the lively bustle and youthful verve of America, its brisk, vital people imbued with purpose, the dignity and prosperity it confers so impartially to its subjects.

Parrot is 50 when he sets foot in America. He has wanted to be an artist since childhood but has ended up entrenched as a servant. Parrot is so called for his gift of being able to repeat whatever he hears, and one of Tocqueville’s observations was the infectious galvanising influence of American society. Parrot quickly becomes an embodiment of the American dream, and the novel makes a subtle but significant point in its distinction between what Parrot sets out to be and what he eventually becomes.

Olivier’s voice in the novel is prissily aristocratic and Parrot’s tone, while often bawdy and irreverent, is variable, appearing to be inflected by his surroundings. (Parrot, after all.) Carey does not mind raising his voice over those of his narrators when there is something particularly beautiful to be said. So, Parrot can tell us his lover rose to meet him with “all the velvet shadows of the room held inside her gorgeous clavicle.” And Olivier from a boat can observe poetically his reception committee on the dock: “What dry and juiceless creatures, wrapped like ravens, furled like umbrellas in the low sad mist.”

A weakness in the novel is the conception of Olivier’s character. The feckless aristocrat and unreliable narrator is also required to be a serious and self-aware political philosopher. As a result Olivier remains a somewhat distant character whose antics we follow with amusement, but for whom we cannot muster very much feeling. Perhaps some share of blame for this can be attributed to Parrot as well, who, as Olivier’s amanuensis, hints that he is not beyond toying with Olivier’s sections of the narrative.

Parrot and Olivier... conjures up a vivid picture of an incipient America that is relevant to our times. It tells a rollicking tale in acute, energetic prose that makes the novel a pleasure to read. Yet, there is a niggling feeling that Tocqueville sometimes intrudes upon the novel, the novel sometimes upon Tocqueville, and that they might yet have been persuaded to form a more perfect union.

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