Parrot and Olivier in America – Peter Carey

I took a long time in buying this book. I picked it up and put it back umpteen times till a few weeks ago when I found it in a clearance sale. The reason I was interested in this book was because it proclaimed on the cover to be one shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010. The reason I was unwilling to pay full price for it was because usually the books that win such prizes are too ‘dark’ and too convoluted to enjoy. The clearance sale had so many copies of this book that I believe most other readers felt the same.

It’s the story of Olivier a French aristocrat and Parrot who is the son of an engraver. Olivier as a child seems a little lost and neglected by his parents. The main source of his mother’s distress is her being separated from the Paris society following the french revolution. Now, since I am foggy on the details of the revolution having given it a cursory reading some 20 years ago in school, the subtle hints didn’t really clear the matter for me in my brain as to what followed after and what was the fate of the aristocracy that wasn’t fed to the guillotine. Anyhow, it is clear that Olivier’s parents were spared and are now living in their countryside villa. Olivier grows up sharing the same belief’s as his mother regarding the supremacy of the aristocracy over the common man. As matters in France begin to boil again, Olivier’s parents find an official reason to ship him off to the comparative safety of America, which is to study the American Prison Systems. Parrot is sent as his servant to keep an eye on him and protect him.

Parrot was the son of an engraver who roamed around in search of work. The bond between the father and son is shown to be strong as they traipse together across the landscape. Parrot loves to draw, and it is hinted that he had great talent though circumstances lead to him never being able to pursue it. He is separated from his father and when we meet him next he is in the employ of ‘Monsieur’, who is a man of dubious reputation and pursuits. Monsieur is also the longtime friend of Olivier’s mother, which is again suggested to be not all pure  and above-board, and he is the one who introduces Parrot as a legitimate candidate to be sent with Olivier to America. It was only later as Parrot begins his narrative that we learn of the hardships that were faced by him as a child and a young man in an Australian prison camp and that he is actually much older than Olivier though he appears to be quite healthy and fit.

As both the aristocrat and the reluctant valet make the journey to America they are strongly antagonistic to each other in the beginning but become friends as time progresses. The American democracy seems to affect them in different ways and though it is supposed to be a story about America eventually I felt it was more about the two men who came from very different backgrounds and became friends.

The writing is simple and easy to understand though all the other characters except Parrot and Olivier are left half-sketched and not quite clear. The book was good but I doubt that I will read it again.

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