Peter Carey employs Parrot, an orphan boy saved by servitude to French nobility, and Olivier, a fictionalized Alexis de Tocqueville, to recreate his life and to create a vignette from his Democracy in America. It juxtaposes the cultural and religious prejudices of French aristocracy with that of the nascent American mercantile and gentleman farmer class of the 1830s. Olivier, a product of inborn status in France, becomes supplicant to the entrepreneurial Parrot, who ostensibly acts as his Secretary, while being paid to spy on Olivier by Olivier’s mother in France. The overriding theme is that America offers upward mobility, while France can’t evolve from the upheaval of the French Revolution, Napoleon and the Second Revolution. Olivier, like de Tocqueville, came to America on the pretext of examining America’s penal system. This permits a peak at the underbelly of America, through its prisons and Parrot and his painter wife’s climb up the economic ladder.
Carey captures the aristocratic ambivalence of de Tocqueville toward the will of the majority in America. For him, it creates a race to the bottom, both politically and culturely. He feels that Parrot’s wife’s art is plebeian, unworthy of some acclaim she receives in America. Politically, he presages the Age of Jackson. Parrot, on the other hand, sees America, like himself, as a work in progress. America of the 1830s is optimistic, France is not.
“Yes, and you will follow fur traders and woodsmen as your presidents, and they will be as barbarians at the head of armies, ignorant of geography and science, the leaders of a mob daily educated by a perfidious press which will make them so confident and ignorant that the only books on their shelves will be instruction manuals, the only theatre gaudy spectacles, the paintings made to please that vulgar class of bankers, men of no moral character, half-bourgeois and half-criminal, who will affect the tastes of an aristocracy but will compete with each other like wrestlers at a fair, wishing only to pay the highest price for the most fashionable artist. Do not laugh, sir. Listen. I have traveled 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.”
There is some truth to Olivier’s soliloquy, but it was too early to for him to witness the impact of immigration on America.
The novel is an entertaining read, that remains as truthful to the portion of de Tocqueville’s life that it captures. Through well-drawn characters it reflects the time and place of the period in France and America. It would be a good companion to Democracy in America.