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Peter Carey

¤  PARROT AND OLIVIER IN AMERICA  (excerpts)

Olivier is an aristocrat, one of an endangered species born in France just after the Revolution. Parrot, the son of an itinerant English printer and twice Olivier’s age, always wanted to be an artist but has ended up a servant. Starting on different sides of history, their lives will be permanently joined by an enigmatic, one-armed Marquis.

When Olivier sets sail for the New World — ostensibly to study its prisons, but in reality to avoid yet another revolution — Parrot is sent with him, as spy, protector, foe and foil. As the narrative shifts between the perspectives of Parrot and Olivier, between their picaresque adventures apart and together — in love and politics, prisons and finance, homelands and brave new lands — a most unlikely friendship begins to take hold. And with their story, Peter Carey explores the adventure of American democracy — in theory, in practice, and in ongoing argument.

Parrot and Olivier in America is a dazzlingly inventive reimagining of Alexis de Tocquevilles famous journey, brilliantly evoking the Old World colliding with the New. Above all, it is a wildly funny and deeply tender portrait of two men who come to form an almost impossible friendship, and a completely improbable work of art.

◊  Peter Carey reads from his novel ↓ Parrot and Olivier in America, at the 2010 Open House festival in Toronto

• Transcript  [count 4 min]

One  –  Olivier:

I had no doubt that something cruel and catastrophic had happened before I was even born, yet the comte and comtesse, my parents, would not tell me what it was. As a result my organ of curiosity was made irritable and I grew into the most restless and unhealthy creature imaginable – slight, pale, always climbing, prying into every drain and attic of the château de Barfleur.

But consider this: Given the ferocity of my investigations, is it not half queer I did not come across my uncle’s célérifère?

Perhaps the célérifère was common knowledge in your own family. In mine it was, like everything, a mystery. This clumsy wooden bicycle, constructed by my uncle Astolphe de Barfleur, was only brought to light when a pair of itinerant slaters glimpsed it strapped to the rafters. Why it should be strapped, I do not know, nor can I imagine why my uncle – for I assume it was he – had used two leather dog collars to do the job. It is my nature to imagine a tragedy – that loyal pets have died for instance – but perhaps the dog collars were simply what my uncle had at hand. In any case, it was typical of the riddles trapped inside the château de Barfleur. At least it was not me who found it and it makes my pulse race, even now, to imagine how my mother might have reacted if I had. Her upsets were never predictable. As for her maternal passions, these were not conventionally expressed, although I relished those occasions, by no means infrequent, when she feared that I would die. It is recorded that, in the year of 1809, she called the doctor on fifty-three occasions. Twenty years later she would still be taking the most outlandish steps to save my life.

My childhood was neither blessed nor tainted by the célérifère, and I would not have mentioned it at all, except – here it is before us now. Typically, the Austrian draftsman fails to suggest the three dimensions.

However:

Could there be a vehicle more appropriate for the task I have so recklessly set myself, one that you, by the bye, have supported by taking this volume in your hands? That is, you have agreed to be transported to my childhood where it will be proven, or if not proven then strongly suggested, that the very shape of my head, my particular phrenology, the volume of my lungs, was determined by unknown pressures brought to bear in the years before my birth.

So let us believe that a grotesque and antique bicycle has been made available to us, its wooden frame in the form of a horse, and of course if we are to approach my home this way, we must be prepared to push my uncle’s hobby across fallen branches through the spinneys. It is almost useless in the rough ground of the woods, where I and the abbé de La Londe, my beloved Bébé, shot so many hundreds of larks and sparrows that I bruised my little shoulder blue.

‘Careful Olivier dear, do be careful.’

We can ignore nose-bleeding for the time being, although to be realistic the blood can be anticipated soon enough – spectacular spurts, splendid gushes – my body being always too thin-walled a container for the passions coursing through its veins, but as we are making up our adventure let us assume there is no blood, no compresses, no leeches, no wild gallops to drag the doctor from his breakfast.

And so we readers can leave the silky treacherous Seine and cross the rough woodlands and enter the path between the linden trees, and I, Olivier Jean Baptiste de Clarel de Barfleur de Garmont, a noble of Myopia, am free to speed like Mercury while pointing out the blurry vegetable garden on the left, the smudgy watercolour of orchard on the right. Here is the ordure of the village road across which I can go sailing, skidding, blind as a bat, through the open gates of the château de Barfleur.

Hello Jacques, hello Gustave, Odile. I am home.

On the right, just inside, is Papa’s courthouse where he conducts the marriages of young peasants, thus saving them military service and early death in Napoleon’s army. It does not need to be said that we are not for Bonaparte, and my papa leaves the intrigues for others. We live a quiet life – he says. In Normandy, in exile, he also says. My mother says the same thing, but more bitterly. Only in our architecture might you glimpse signs of the powerful familial trauma. We live a quiet life, but our courtyard resembles a battlefield, its ancient austerity insulted by a sea of trenches, fortifications, red mud, white sand, grey flagstones and fifty-four forsythias with their roots bound up in balls of hessian. In order that the courtyard should reach its proper glory, the Austrian architect has been installed in the Blue Room with his drawing boards and pencils. You may glimpse this uppity creature as we pass.

I have omitted mention of the most serious defect of my uncle’s vehicle – the lack of steering. There are more faults besides, but who could really care? The two-wheeled célérifère was one of those dazzling machines that are initially mocked for their impracticality until, all in a great rush, like an Italian footman falling down a staircase, they arrive in front of us, unavoidably real and extraordinarily useful.

The years before 1805, when I was first delivered to my mother’s breast, constituted an age of inventions of great beauty and great terror – and I was very soon aware of all of this without knowing exactly what the beauty or the terror were. What I understood was drawn solely from what we call the symbolic aggregate: that is, the confluence of the secrets, the disturbing flavour of my mother’s milk, my own breathing, the truly horrible and unrelenting lowing of the condemned cattle which, particularly on winter afternoons, at that hour when the servants have once more failed to light the lanterns, distressed me beyond belief.

Two  ↓

 Parrot and Olivier in America

Parrot

 i

You might think, who is this, and I might say, this is God and what are you to do? Or I might say, a bird! Or I could tell you, madame, monsieur, sir, madam, how this name was given to me—I was christened Parrot because my hair was colored carrot, because my skin was burned to feathers, and when I tumbled down into the whaler, the coxswain yelled, Here’s a parrot, captain. So it seems you have your answer, but you don’t.

I had been named Parrot as a child, when my skin was still pale and tender as a maiden’s breast, and I was still Parrot in 1793, when Olivier de Bah-bah Garmont was not even a twinkle in his father’s eye.

To belabor the point, sir, I was and am distinctly senior to that unborn child.

In 1793 the French were chopping off each other’s heads and I was already twelve years of age and my endodermis naturalus had become scrubbed and hardened by the wind and mists of Dartmoor, from whose vastness my da and I never strayed too far. I had tramped behind my darling da down muddy lanes and I was still called Parrot when he, Jack Larrit, carried me on his shoulder through Northgate at Totnes.

My daddy loved his Parrot. He would sit me on the bar of the Kingsbridge Inn, to let the punters hear what wonders came from my amazing mouth: Man is born free and is everywhere in chains.

If that ain’t worth sixpence what is?

My daddy was a journeyman printer, a lanky man with big knees and knubbly knuckled hands with which he would ruff up his red hair when looking for First Principles. Inside this bird’s nest it was a surprise to find his small white noggin, the precious engine of his bright gray eyes.

“Children remain tied to their father by nature only so long as they need him for their preservation. As soon as this ends,” so wrote the great Rousseau, “the natural bond is dissolved. Once the children are freed from the obedience they owe their father and the father is freed from their responsibilities towards them, both parties equally regain their independence. If they continue to remain united, it is no longer nature but their own choice, which unites them; and the family as such is kept together only by agreement.”

More or less that’s it.

My daddy and I were two peas in a pod. The acquisition of knowledge was our occupation, but of my ma I knew nothing except that she had a tiny waist which would fit inside her husband’s hands. I missed her all my life.

I knew Adam Smith before I reached fractions. Then I was put to Latin which my father liked no more than I did, and this caused us considerable upset, both with ourselves and with each other. It was due to Latin that my father got in a state and clipped my lughole and I grabbed a half-burned bit of kindling and set to drawing on the floor. I had never seen a drawing in my life, and when I saw what I was doing, dear God, I thought I had invented it. And what rage, what fury, what a delicious humming wickedness I felt. All over the floor and who will clean it? I had seen my daddy’s hand reach for his belt buckle and I was, ipso facto, ready for the slap. Yet at this moment I entered a foreign jungle of the soul. I drew a man with a dirty long nose. A leaping trout. A donkey falling upside down.

But my daddy’s belt stayed in his trousers.

He stared at me. His hair stood up like taffy. He cocked his head. I permitted him to take my charcoal stick and kiss me on the head. Not a cross word, or a kind one. He led the Parrot downstairs where he ordered the landlord pour me a ginger beer. Then he sat and watched me drink, and what was he pondering, do you reckon?

Why, the benefits of having an engraver in the family.

Thereafter I was a mighty protégé and we forgot about our upsets and our Latin and our fractions, and even though my drawings were not always wanted where I placed them, he encouraged me at every turn, always on the lookout for a quiet church porch on account of the quality of its slate. As to subjects, he was not fussy, although once he gave me a pound note to see what I could make of it.

On another occasion he was compelled to scrub clean the Dartmouth footpath on which I had drawn the great bloody head of Louis XVI. My father said he didn’t mind the scrubbing, it being a pleasure to make any tyrant vanish from the earth. It was suggested we might leave the town. There was no work in Dartmouth anyway. But up in Dittisham—Dit’sum as they called it—we found a strangely isolated printery, situated just at the place where the estuary became the River Dart, and there we found members of that better-educated class—I mean printers. There is nothing like them. Having spent all their day with words and proofs, they are monstrously well read and disputatious beasts, always—while setting up the type, tapping in the furniture, rolling out the ink—arguing. If it was not that they spoke varying types of English, you might think yourself in France. It was the drunken height of revolution and all was Girondins or Cordeliers, Hume or Paine.

The printers at Dit’sum were family-genus-species Textus miraculus. They would shut up only at the long deal table which they shared with their master, Mr. Piggott, and his wife, them both being Catholics of a put-upon variety and very sarcastic about Tom Paine in particular. Mrs. Piggott was a young Frenchwoman easily made tearful by events in her country, which left the men with nothing they could safely say at table—but I am ahead of myself. I did not say our single aim was to find shelter and a decent meal.

We arrived from Dartmouth at dinnertime. My father knocked and hallooed, until we discovered seven full-grown humans, all supping at a table, quiet as Lent.

We finally sat down at the end with big bowls of stew and lumps of rough bread and a cup of rainwater and about twenty cats mewling about our legs. No sooner did my daddy have a mouthful than the master wished to know who he was. He replied he was a press or case man, whatever was needed worst. In fact Piggott required a case man—that is, a compositor—who would lift types for sixpence a thousand, but at first he said nothing of it, for he was staring hard at me. No matter how girlish his wife, Mr. Piggott himself was all of sixty. He was almost bald, with a little lump of a nose.

“The Devil, are you?” he demanded.

“Me, sir?”

“You, lad.”

He had a very short neck and colossal shoulders that seemed as wide as the table and when he stood to see me better he began to butt his big head against the ceiling, like a goat. I would have run but my father clamped my thigh. I said that I was ten years old and, being too young to be apprenticed, I was accustomed to taking the job of devil. My father was occupied cleaning the tines of his fork with his shirttail. Many is the dirty job I did, I told old Piggott. I would rather work than play. I could clean the proofing press, I said. I was a dab hand at dissing which is what they call putting the type back in its right case.

“See him draw a racehorse,” said my father.

This comment caused some puzzlement but finally I was given pencil and paper. The result was then passed around the table. No one made a comment but when the horse arrived in front of Mrs. Piggott, she rose up from her chair.

The mistress could have not yet have been twenty, but I saw a small old person, camouflaged like a lizard, and she came around the table at me flicking out a measuring tape like some enormous tongue.

My face and neck burned bright red while I stood in front of all these men and Mrs. Piggott, with no word of explanation, having completely ignored my racehorse, measured me, not only my height but around my chest, from armpit to extremity.

“Ah, ain’t that lovely?” said my da who would say anything to get a nice hot feed. “See that Parrot—you are to be measured. What a treat,” he said to Mr. Piggott.

Mrs. Piggott slipped her tape measure into the pocket of her pinny. Mr. Piggott thumped his fist twice against the ceiling, which was even more alarming than the butting. At this signal each printer bowed his atheistic head.

Benedictus benedicat per Jesum Christum Dominum nostrum.” Then, moving from Latin to English without a cough, Mr. Piggott formally employed my father, passing down to him, from hand to hand, a copy of Miss Parsons’ The Castle of Wolfenbach which, just published in London for ten shillings, he would soon have on the roads at six shillings and sixpence.

My father said, “Good-oh,” and did not seem to worry about what might happen to me on account of the measuring. My racehorse was left with all the bread crumbs. I never had so little praise before.

Even when we went out after dinner my dad said not a word about what had happened. Instead he lit his pipe and told me this was certainly the River Dart. It was a place where cattle crossed, so the bank was bad smelling from their droppings mixed with earth. “Lovely night,” my father said, turning with one arm behind his back to survey the printery which occupied what might have once been a grand house but had long been encroached upon by woods, tangled in wild creeper, guarded by thistles on the riverbank, surrounded by carts and wheels in such a style you would think it the graveyard for old carriages.

Piggott’s was what was called a black house, not because of the grimy slate tiles that wrapped themselves around the soft contours of the roof, but on account of printing what was on the cross. To make this cheap edition of The Castle of Wolfenbach was an offense against the crown.

Soon Mrs. Piggott gave us each a bundle of bed linen and when my father paid her a florin, she silently showed him to a bed by the dormitory door. Me she led to the far end and left me in what was once a kind of scullery. My da said it was a fine accommodation but this was like him, to become most enthusiastic when most oppressed by life. He showed me how I could lie in bed and watch the cattle go home for milking. His bright eyes were a fright to see.

On this first night, I was sitting on my bed, wondering if I dare walk outside to do my business, when something attacked my shoulder, I thought a bird or bat but discovered a pile of quarto proofs wrapped in string.

My da was always at me with a book and I was not displeased. When I had unwrapped the bundle I was excited to find engravings for a picture book. Alas, these were depictions of human congress too disturbing for a child. I could chop the head off a king, but I was not strong enough for this.

I never told my father what I had seen, or why I abandoned my own place and walked the length of the dormitory in my nightshirt and squeezed into his narrow crib.

“Oh this is a grand place,” he said, and I agreed it was and got ready to protect myself from his nightmares and his bruising knees.

 .   .   .  Peter Carey reads another passage  ↓

. . . intro until count 01’37»

I ended into the white gas stream of Broadway but could not see the silver North River and the dark East River flowing like mercury in the night. And how could I guess what was occurring, that […?] air in the […?] streets around the battery, where there was a murky smoking red fleck flow of life, not ants but human beings, so living mass of men, roaring south toward me. A […?] in the city […?] are locked, had locked about 300 pigs inside the Canal Street pond, and I’d seen a notice in the street, but what were pigs to me? The city could no longer tolerate the swine in there and provident owners let wander the streets, where they relieved themselves in public and fornicated without shame.

The people’s pigs had been stolen from them. And as a result there was extreme social agitation around the pond. All the angry owners of the pigs summed up with hammers, others with crowbars, others with no more than a scheme full of John Barleycorn… They’d been drawn towards this enclosure like filings to a magnet. So as I was innocently wondered about the price of a dozen New York oysters, some hundred pigs were stampeding into genteel Hudson Square, and a greater number of people, men were stumbling, falling, hollering…, one which Danny to retrieve his own pig and lead him home, another to steal a new pig, but had no other ambition that to share the joy of the chase. «I heard them coming, I suppose, but […?] so many years in Paris I thought the roar of voices to be nothing but a boxing match nearby.»

On the corner, half Broadway, a long chain industry, I saw a strange sight, a French noble whose cloak did not obscure the gold and broidery shining as Jesus in the gas. He carried a silver cap stick in his inky right hand, in an untidy pile of papers beneath his left hand. I’d forgotten that Lord migraine was shortsighted, so when he did not see me I […?] be meant to cut me. Why not? It must be clear by now that I had no intention of being his second signatory, but then I saw he was not cutting me at all, he offered me his hand. «Which way do you walk?» he asked. ICU was once again attempt in English I was slow to assist… «I’d trust Mrs Laraque is recovered,» he said. In the course of this very short conversation, we’d walked a block and we were round the corner of Murray Street when the swine and their fellows arrived on top of us. Murray was dark, the Broadway was lit from the battery up to the Delphy Theatre; solo I pulled them into a doorway, the bright light caught his fancy coat and that was […?] enough to hold the whole stampede with that part of it, composed of a hulking Irishman and his carried friend who immediately demanded that the aristocrat tell them who he was and where he came from.

«I am Mr Olivier Clarel,» he said in a […?] style, not well suited to the situation. «I am a friend of General LaFayette,» to which the Carib wished to know how it was his head had been taken off his shoulders many years before. The little fellow stepped full into the light, and with that largeness a gesture that marks French theatrical speech, declared himself to be a student of Democracy. Alas his listeners knew nothing from the French or the theatre, they were drunk and probably a front fronted but he did not have the grace to act afraid. «You little spit,» cried the Irishman and wrapped his arms around the slender neck and dragged him into Murray Street, wrenched him so violently that papers and stick went flying in the dark. I searched for his stick and found it by its silver knob but this time the two large men were sending him back and forwards forth like a shuttlecock, and singing in loud rousing voices […?] you can pay me not to sing…

Er… What Migraine seemed not to understand, the deadly intention of the song, silver knob […?] stick was too light to be a useful weapon. Chats brought me a decent length of timber, four inches by two inches, I would say, this instrument I brought down on the Carib’s arm. Lord, what a crack! Urgently the fellow held his limb against his chest, bestowing upon at me in complete silence, a look of […?] outrage. «Kindly bash the bugger Jim,» he said, or words to that effect. I was a fair height and I was strong enough, but the Irishman was taller and heavier. I […?] was a ferry driver famous for his film, ‘Out and Violent Position or Disputed Warps,’ Soon he would be a millionaire, now he was about to murder ma. The Irishman had raised his green fist. «Lord Jesus,» interrupted the Caravan set down suddenly. «Ellerbe!» cried Lord Migraine. I’ve… did not have to turn my head to see the Frenchman’s arm, it was extended parallel to the earth, and at one end there was a pistol, with an 8″ barrell. «No,» I said, for I didn’t see how he had had time to prime it.

«Alles  . . . « The Irish began to laugh and that was his miscalculation, for it produced a flash of flame and he was violently pulled backwards on his heels. «You,» he said clutching in himself, it was clear he’s taken a bull in the shoulder. «Now,» said my surprising ally to our two assailants, «[…?] chez vous,» It was clear I had much to learn about alleviate…

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