Sly, the cover of Peter Carey's new novel, Parrot & Olivier in America. A fine, mild-visaged, white-curled gentleman with an elegant ribbon in his wig and a coat of lush French blue velvet smiles at the reader with benign hauteur from behind a small, cream-coloured envelope, such as might contain a letter of introduction to, voyons, a prison warden in young America - New York, say, or New England, one of those dreadful striving News - such as a young French aristocrat might procure in the early 19th century, ostensibly to further his field of study, in reality to avoid the next wave of revolutionary bloodlust to target his family name.
And if you note the similarity, rhythmic and otherwise, of that name (Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont) to a certain Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville, well, good Monsieur, clever Madame, that is entirely à vous.
But what the devil is that object or implement thrust at the back of said gentleman's head, like a pin to secure his frou-frou bow, or impale his French blue-blooded neck? Turn the volume over in your hands, go on, and notice four fingers fondling the spine, nay the book's spine (fear not, blanching Sir, blushing Missus), for that object or implement is a paintbrush wielded (if you turn your volume to the nether cover) by a smoke-suited, pigeon-breasted, lace-cuffed young man with a sharper eye than his shorter subject; and if you doubt a painting of a man could paint another man in the same painting, then you doubt a fictional man could complete another fictional man in the same novel, and Carey's brilliant new work is, sadly (suspicious Sir, mistrustful Missus), not for you.
Their friendship is ... a Made in America miracle
But what's it all about? Well, there is Olivier, the French aristocrat, whose views of Americans evolve through the course of the novel from superior ("My companions … are nothing if not charming but it is already clear that the Americans carry national pride altogether too far. I doubt whether it is possible to draw from them the least truth unfavorable to their country") to besotted ("In brushing this young woman's hot hand I was flirting with something that was unimaginable, and if I had been engaged and disturbed by America generally, then I was practically engaged and disturbed by the daring and beauty of Amelia Godefroy").
Olivier has been bundled off to America at the behest of his mother, who suffered brutally under the French Terror of 1793 and thinks only of how to save her son from a similar fate. Accompanying him is Parrot, an English orphan with artistic aspirations, trained as a printer, who is yoked to "Olivier de Bah-bah Garmont" as servant, gadfly and spy. Both men wrestle with demon love: Olivier for his democratic American girl who can never be taken to home to Paris and maman; Parrot for his mistress, a beautiful and lusty painter, "all that smeary wine and meat and fat glistening on her lips," and whose talent outstrips his own.
In short, it's a buddy novel. But what a novel! The Australian-born Carey, now living in New York, has twice won the Man Booker Prize, for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and True History of the Kelly Gang in 2000. Both those novels illustrate Carey's wicked talent for historical voice, particularly the richly humorous circumlocutions of 19th-century diction, which are on full display here.
Witness Parrot on his relationship with the haughty Olivier: "It was bad enough to be a servant to the dreadful de Tilbot, paid to blow his nose and pour his wine. But I must then become a spy, required to write up every word of certain conversations which were later delivered to the Comtesse de Garmont, by which I mean Lord Migraine's mummy, who would not believe Monsieur's simple recollections of conversations with her son. She told him frankly that his cranium lacked the second bump and he therefore had no interest in her child."
Gradually, of course, Parrot and Olivier warm up to each other. The aristocrat is increasingly struck by the possibilities of democracy, and the servant discovers empathy for his exasperating employer, reflecting in the book's closing pages that "a man could not be angry with a child of the awful guillotine. … Poor sausage." Their friendship is the achievement of that democracy, a Made in America miracle.
"In a revolution, as in a novel, the most difficult part to invent is the end," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in his Recollections. Carey's novel ends with a wink to the modern reader ("There is no tyranny in America, nor ever could be"), reminding us that America is an ongoing invention, one big enough to encompass all manner of parrots, English and French and Australian too. Funny, bawdy, brainy and moving, Parrot & Olivier in America is an utter delight.
Annabel Lyon is the author of The Golden Mean, which last year won the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize.