Parrot and Olivier in America (but first in France)

Parrot and Olivier in America

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Parrot and Olivier in America

The novel Murder on the Eiffel Tower actually did what few mysteries can accomplish: evoke further questions. The authors behind the nom de plume, Claude Izner, offer such a historically evocative narrative that I was curious about a number of aspects.  First, it is set in 1889 at the Universal Exposition in Paris celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution. Celebrating the French Revolution? There’s a lesson in ethnocentrism! Many of my history lessons focused on the terror of the revolution rather than onnthrowing off of the tyranny of the ruling class and the ascension of the “Citizen.” But, we would do well to remember that the French Revolution was inspired, in part, by the Revolutionary War in the Colonies as America strove to escape from British taxation and rule. So, there was the first question to ponder: a celebration of the French Revolution. Hmm.

Question two then became “How did the USA deal with this centennial celebration of the French Revolution,” keeping in mind that no doubt the centennial was motivated in part when in 1876 the centennial of the American Revolution was celebrated (as it had been 50 years earlier when Lafayette made a triumphant return to the States). It may be telling that the USA sent to France as a gift to mark the event a small replica  of the Statue of Liberty, as  noted in Murder on the Eiffel Tower.

Question three was “what happened to the French nobility” who escaped the guillotine? Part of the answer is found in the award-winning novel Parrot and Olivier in America (2009 in Australia; 2010 in USA). (The novel was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award.) While most reviews of this work center on how author Peter Carey replicates the story of de Tocqueville, his visit to early America and the work that resulted from that trip, Democracy in America, I was much more interested in the first one-third of the novel that focuses on a surviving noble family, the de Garmont clan of which Olivier is the young son, born in 1805. (His grandfather, though, was executed, just as de Tocqueville’s was.) The tone of the novel is established with the outlandish names such as the Chateau de Barfleur, where young Olivier spends his childhood. And, it should be noted that Olivier’s full name is Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a “noble of Myopia.” Certainly a more apt description would be hard to find for Olivier: myopic.

This early portion of the novel is set in largely in Normandy and gives some insight into how these noble families felt and were treated in revolutionary-era France. Olivier’s parents are well aware that they barely escaped with their lives, but still they are determined to be treated as nobility whenever possible and instill in the young Olivier a sense of his  worth—even though he’s rather a worthless sort, prone to tantrums and illness. His servant keeps a bowl of leeches at the ready, in fact, so he can be bled, which he seems to welcome. All in all, he is an unlikely and unlikable protagonist, as a child and then later as a young man and lawyer who must be packed off to America to escape the latest anti-nobility purge.

Although the terror of the purge is fairly recent during Olivier’s childhood, “noble” families continue to hope for the return of the royal family. They put up with a “democratic” France only when they have to in order to keep their heads. When Louis the 18th comes to power—a brief respite from Napoleonic rule—the de Garmonts rush back to Paris and their home to resume their noble lifestyle. They are rather put off to find horses on the main floor of their mansion as the stables have been destroyed by invading forces, and there is definitely ruin throughout the city wrought by the various combatants. They stay on, though, thinking that peerages and positions of influence are possible. This is a short-lived dream as Napoleon ascends once again.

But this is a novel about two characters: Olivier and Parrot. The latter is an English lad whose father is an itinerant printer. Their story is told once Olivier and his family are introduced. The lad—nicknamed Parrot from his name Perroquet and born in 1781—has a talent for drawing, and his father quickly sees that a future as an engraver might be a possibility, making a good team. Parrot earns his way in the company of this father by being the errand boy to a rather “isolated” printing group near Dartmouth, England. As they come to learn, the isolation is due in part to the surreptitious printing that is being done: counterfeit French money. Its existence could help undermine the new government of rebels.

The linchpin between Parrot and Olivier is a one-armed Frenchman, Tilbot, who is in love with Olivier’s mother, but who also is a spy. He happens to be in the printer’s house when it is raided. Tilbot and Parrot manage to escape together, and thus Parrot grows to manhood in his company, treated as a servant.

The main part of the novel—the journey to and stay in America–is told in alternating voice between Olivier and Parrot. The latter must serve as lackey and chaperone to Olivier—Lord Migraine in Parrot’s opinion—as Olivier is packed off to America to “investigate its prison system” for the new French government but in actuality to save his own skin although he is too dim-witted to know that he is in serious trouble. This is Tilbot’s doing at the instigation of Olivier’s mother. This is not Sancho and Quixote, no Tonto and Lone Ranger. The “sidekicks” rarely are together once in America, and each has his own tale to relate.

Almost every character introduced in the novel comes in for satiric treatment, and certainly the newly-minted “Americans” are no exception. A word about the origin of this plot: de Tocqueville was sent to America on much the same investigation as Olivier undertakes (to review the American prison system and report back to the new French government) and on the same ship, the Havre. Both determine to enlarge the scope of their investigative reporting from prisons to the larger theme of “what is America.”

The two engage in a picaresque journey, which offers insight into American culture. Imagine Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad to get a sense of the “insight” and humor that can arise from outsiders looking at a different culture. There are plenty of humorous scenes for the reader—who can appreciate the story from a 21st century perspective.

This is a tour de force novel. (Carey is a two-time winner of the Book Prize.) Social and political satire and commentary abound. Personally, I found that the novel somewhat ponderous although I admired the prose of the author. It did give me a better picture of what France may have been like post-Revolution. Certainly it didn’t answer all of my questions. For more on that, I’ll be seeking out some real histories. But a foray into a good book such as this one reinforces my notion that I prefer my history as fiction.

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