One reason why I love books is because the stories they tell often makes me see things from a hundred different contrasting perspectives at the same time. A single minded devotion to the hero or a cold hatred of the villain becomes impossible because the characters reveal themselves to be an amalgam of all shades – black, white and all the colours in between.
This above was emphatically re-enforced with Peter Carey’s “Parrot and Olivier in America”. A tale of the old establishment giving way to new, we get to look at the disbandment of aristocracy and the advancement of democracy through the eyes of its two protagonists, Olivier and Parrot. Olivier is a spoilt and coddled French aristocrat whose grandfather was beheaded during the French Revolution. Parrot is Olivier’s servant and protector and someone who privately calls Olivier ‘Lord Migraine’.
As Olivier and Parrot travel to America so that Olivier can learn about the prison systems in that country, a blurring of lines occurs as Parrot and Olivier move from master and servant to two people having a sort of uneasy affection for each other. Olivier is appalled that the upstarts he encounters in America profess to understand literature and culture and theatre. Will we now have to live under ‘the awful tyranny of majority’ he wonders. On the other hand, Parrot finds America a land of opportunities and finds his own rags to riches story there.
While the story of Parrot and Olivier’s journey is interesting enough, what captured my attention was my own reaction to the tale. The book is a first person account, alternating between Olivier’s and Parrot’s viewpoints of their circumstances and experiences. Normally, I would have seen Olivier as the bad guy who is against democracy because he’d like to continue being the power-bearer. However, the story of his upbringing, the weight of his ancestry and Olivier’s first person account made me see that things weren’t so black and white: Olivier does not reject democracy out of hand – he finds a certain attraction in it but vehemently objects to the decline of ‘that class with the leisure to acquire discernment and taste in all art.’ And this understanding made me wonder whether our tendency to reduce everything to a byte sized catchphrase results in a loss of a deeper understanding, especially with those whose opinions are diametrically opposed to ours.
Having had to read “Parrot and Olivier in America” in bits and pieces because of the general busy-ness of life, I did not really enjoy it that much as each time I started to get into the flow of the story, I had to stop. I might be tempted to re-read it at some point though and I’d urge you to give it a try too – Parrot’s & Olivier’s adventures of American democracy can definitely be tried once!