Forged, Forger, Forget
- Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey
Faber, 451 pp, £18.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 0 571 25329 6
Parrot and Olivier in America is the singular and surprising offspring of an unlikely coupling between two different novels: one, a fantasia on Tocqueville’s travels in America in 1831, the other a picaresque romance about an Englishman called John Larrit (known as Parrot for his talent as a mimic) who is suddenly and brutally torn from an idyllic childhood as the son of an itinerant printer in late 18th-century Devon and transported to Australia, where he grows up to become a topographical artist and engraver.
The novel announces its hybrid nature in its title. Not many readers will get the allusion here to Tocqueville and Beaumont in America by George Wilson Pierson, published in 1938 and for a long time the standard account of the nine-month journey which Tocqueville undertook with his friend Gustave de Beaumont, ostensibly for the purpose of writing a report on the American prison system, but which also gave him the material for Democracy in America. Everyone, though, will hear the oddity and dissonance in ‘Parrot and Olivier’ – a pairing not far short of nonsense.
Olivier is Tocqueville, yet not Tocqueville. Like Tocqueville, he is born in 1805 into a family of the old French aristocracy, to parents who have been lucky to survive the Revolution. Like Tocqueville he is educated by the family priest. As a young man he becomes a magistrate (like Tocqueville) and engages in much political soul-searching, torn between loyalty to the royalist cause and his growing sympathy for liberal ideas. Like Tocqueville, he witnesses the July Revolution of 1830 and escapes danger by travelling to America. Once there, however, Olivier follows a much abridged and rearranged version of Tocqueville’s itinerary, and he does so not in the company of his best friend but of his newly acquired English servant, John Larrit. And, unlike Tocqueville, Olivier falls in love. His romance with Amelia Godefroy, the daughter of a governor of Wethersfield prison in Connecticut (which Tocqueville also visited), takes on the character of an éducation sentimentale for Olivier, a life crisis that pushes his intellectual concerns into second place.
One can see why Carey had to ditch Beaumont. In background, temperament and intellect, Tocqueville’s friend was too close to him to be much use to a novelist. Two broadly similar characters in the same novel won’t work. So Alexis-Charles-Henri Clérel de Tocqueville becomes Olivier-Jean-Baptiste de Clarel de Garmont, incorporating, as it were, the back half of Beaumont, who otherwise appears in the novel as Thomas de Blacqueville, Olivier’s best friend, bumped off in a duel before Olivier has even embarked for the New World. By grafting Beaumont onto Garmont and Tocqueville onto Blacqueville, Carey establishes the rules of his creative game and signs over to himself extensive rights of poetic licence.
The introduction of John Larrit (Parrot) into the Tocqueville story gives Carey his novel, but the fusion is not seamless. The Larrit material seems older, as though Carey had been mulling it over well before he got the idea of writing about Tocqueville. Partly, this is because Larrit himself is older: he’s twice Olivier’s age, and we meet him first in 1793, when he is 12, leading a peripatetic life on Dartmoor with his father, Jack Larrit, his beloved ‘Da’, a journeyman printer. Young John has never known his mother (dead, presumably, in childbirth), and he is effectively orphaned when his father gets hauled off by the king’s men for his involvement in an illicit printing operation in Dittisham on the River Dart, a so-called ‘black house’ run by a man called Piggott, whose secret business is forging currency.
The Dittisham episode is the strongest in the novel and its visionary self-sufficiency suggests that it arose in Carey’s imagination separately from the rest of the book. I fancy Carey gives us a clue to the genesis of this material, in the form of a very specific and well-researched reference to an early 19th-century engraving. Olivier and Parrot are in Philadelphia to see the famous Quaker prison there, the Eastern State Penitentiary, and they are staying with a Frenchman called Duponceau, a bibliophile, whose collection of fine books includes a volume of botanical and other engravings from the Antipodes, which Parrot, to Olivier’s astonishment, claims are his own work. Only one of the engravings it contains is mentioned by name – ‘Sauvages des environs de la rivière Nepean’, a picture of three aborigines. The novel is silent on the point, but the title of the engraving identifies the volume as Voyage autour du monde, a historical atlas and record of Louis de Freycinet’s second expedition to the South Seas in 1817. According to the catalogue of the National Library of Australia, ‘Sauvages des environs de la rivière Nepean’ is Plate 100 in the folio and it is the work of two artists – Alphonse Pellion and an engraver whose name is given as, simply, E. Forget.
In my origin myth for Larrit’s (Parrot’s) story, I have Carey browsing through an edition of the Voyage and, like Olivier, stopping at the print of the three aborigines, his eye caught by the name E. Forget. For a novelist whose work has shown an intense interest in the creative power of lies, fakes and counterfeits, the name E. Forget would jump off the page. Of all the ‘f’ words that speak of the relationship of fact and fiction, ‘forge’ is the most expressively two-faced: to forge being both to falsify and to create, to fake and to make. ‘E. Forget’: what did he forge and what must he forget? In answering these questions, Carey conceived the story of John Larrit, whose fate was sealed by forgery and who came to feel so cheated of his life as an artist and maker that he tried to forget some of his happiest and most fulfilled years. (In Parrot and Olivier, the words ‘forged’, ‘forger’ and ‘forget’ appear within a page or two of the mention of the engraving.)
Carey’s idea, as I imagine it, was to write the story of one of the artists and engravers on Freycinet’s expedition – an Englishman, deported to Australia when he was a child after his father was hanged for counterfeiting money. This ‘proto-Larrit’ novel would have moved back and forth between John’s childhood in Devon, his voyage to Australia, his struggles to establish himself as an artist and his experiences as a member of a French scientific expedition.
Here, then, we have two possible novels, asynchronous with one another and orientated on opposite geographical axes (France-America, England-Australia), but each wholly or partly inspired by the expedition of a French nobleman: in the first case, Tocqueville, in the second, Freycinet. Perhaps it was the French connection that suggested to Carey the idea of folding the novels into each other, of hitching John Larrit up with Olivier de Garmont. It was certainly the French connection that made this possible. Enter the Marquis de Tilbot, the one-armed ‘Hero of the Vendée’, a nobleman dispossessed by the revolution and reduced to counterinsurgency, spying and wheeler-dealing in a shadowy international underworld. In Parrot and Olivier in America, the Marquis de Tilbot is one of Piggott’s customers, known to Piggott’s printers simply as ‘Monsieur’, whose interest is in undermining the economy of revolutionary France by flooding it with forged assignats. When the authorities bust Piggott’s operation, Tilbot, who just happens to have dropped in to pick up his stash, escapes across Dartmoor with young John Larrit as his guide. At Westward Ho!, they board a prison ship, the Samarand, bound for Australia. Tilbot jumps ship in Rio, leaving the boy with nothing between him and destitution but a wad of fake currency sewn into the lining of a rabbit skin.
The next part of Larrit’s story is largely suppressed in the novel, as Larrit himself suppresses it to spare himself the pain of remembering it, and it only comes to light in Philadelphia, when he and Olivier are looking at Duponceau’s books. Prompted by the sight of his own engravings, Larrit tells how, years after abandoning him, Tilbot turned up in Australia and persuaded him to join an expedition to the ‘viper-infested jungles of Queensland’ to make engravings of plants for the Empress Josephine, before flattering him with tales of artistic fame and fortune and taking him back to Paris.
Tilbot is an operator, a fixer, and it’s typical of the shaping energy of Carey’s imagination that he should create a character who functions both as a fixer in the story and a fixer for the story. By delivering Larrit to Paris, the Marquis de Tilbot earns his keep with Carey, who then only has to come up with the notion that Tilbot is an old friend and former lover of Olivier’s mother to forge the link between his two novels. The Comtesse de Garmont devises the plan for Larrit, the Marquis de Tilbot’s general factotum, to accompany Olivier to America, with the task of keeping an eye on him, while acting as his servant, secretary and banker.
It might seem that this link is far too slender to hold two such substantial masses of fictional material together. That Parrot and Olivier in America doesn’t simply fall apart is the result of Carey’s having seen that the very incompatibility of the two stories was what was interesting about them. The challenge of the novel became to create an artistic whole out of such unlike materials, a challenge which Carey meets by making the disparity between John Larrit and Olivier de Garmont the subject of his book. At the simplest level, Parrot and Olivier in America is about two men of different background, social status, character, temperament and experience, who, finding themselves flung together by circumstance, at first dislike each other intensely, but come in time to find a measure of mutual respect, friendship, even love. But the novel’s interest in the immiscibility of Parrot and Olivier extends beyond character to structure and style. They take it in turns to tell the story and with quite distinct voices.
Though the narrative is distributed evenly between Parrot and Olivier, as characters they are not equally weighted. The novel’s natural sympathies lie with Parrot. Carey even adds a short epilogue in which he allows Parrot to claim he has written and published the whole thing himself. This so unbalances the novel that it is best ignored as an error of judgment on Carey’s part, but it’s a sign, nonetheless, of how far by the end of the book Parrot’s view of life has prevailed over Olivier’s, a preponderance most evident in the contrast between the way each of them tells his story. Olivier’s style is meant to befit an educated French aristocrat living in the early 19th century. He’s a stickler for form and has a natural and unexamined sense of entitlement, so his style needs to be correct and literary, perhaps a little over-elaborate, and it must be historically believable. Carey’s attempt at this is creditable but uneasy. It always feels faintly like a voice ‘put on’, as though written from the outside, and it produces prose like this: ‘Yet the curtain had fallen on gore and glory, and we found ourselves in a theatre where we were revealed as poor pale creatures, blinking in the artless light … Worse, we were overshadowed by our family trees’; ‘I turned to my mother and saw from the crêpe skin on her cheek that she was already hearing the thundering clocks of history which she knew were about to strike their awful bells’; ‘It would be beneath a grander Grecian version of this humble appendage [a neoclassical porch] where I would meet my very erudite and handsome host and also feel my cheeks warmed by the presence of she who I affected to be unaware of.’ Writing like this privileges the characterisation of voice above interest or precision. By contrast, Parrot’s language bursts with creative energy and exuberance:
A boy’s life, like a bird’s life, is not what is generally assumed. For bird examples, watch the whitethroats gorging in the bramble patches, the warblers gluttoning among the blackberries, the blackcaps swinging off the rose hips, all in a panic to get fat before the summer ends. I, for my part, was forever in a fret lest my daddy die like my mother and leave me with no one to care for me, no one to save me from my cheeky nature, my mimicking, my fear of strangers on the road or in the woods at night, tramps, scamps, hermits, men who put paper noses on their face to frighten boys.
There’s an unforced music in this and a figurative life that seems as spontaneous as it is exact. Here, for example, is the young John Larrit going about his business as a printer’s devil: ‘Only two days later I was on the lanes with my cart of newspapers, and all around me bindweed, bluebell, chamomile and coltsfoot, ferns uncurling like a thought, white butterflies around my shoulders.’ In Parrot’s writing thoughts uncurl like ferns, metaphors and similes exchanging meaning in an organic and effortless ebb and flow. This is how he describes the sinister and sadistic Lord Devon when he comes with his henchmen, Mr Benjamin and Mr Poole (‘Their hats were small black dinghies beached upon their wigless heads’), to round up the printers and burn down the printworks: ‘His lordship did not so much as lift an eyebrow. He removed his topcoat, revealing himself in his waistcoat like some dangerous red-chested bird with gold embroidery around its buttonholes and pockets.’ The writing shapes and paces the drama of the Dittisham raid with alarming exuberance. John, trying to escape, is grabbed by Lord Devon: ‘As a lizard drops its tail to save its life, so must the Parrot sacrifice his sleeve to escape Lord Devon’s grip. Out of the door I fled into the inky evening, not a living soul in sight except the house martins scything across the sky.’ He next runs foul of Mr Benjamin: ‘I had reached the stinging nettles, just before the door, when the designated wicket keeper caught me. Mr Benjamin dropped on me like a spider, wrapping his huge hands around my chest, binding me to him, so close I could smell the inside of his nose.’ Giving Mr Benjamin the slip, the boy is finally nabbed by Mr Poole: ‘He had fair hair and blue eyes and a red blush to his cheeks like a toy soldier. He was slight but as hard and stitched together as the leather casing of a ball, and though I kicked and spat and scratched at him, there was no escape from the bony shackle around my wrist.’
The figurative grace notes and harmonics of Parrot’s verbal music conjure a world and at the same time make Parrot himself vividly real. Birds, dinghies, lizards, spiders, toy soldiers, cricket balls and wicket keepers: the ecstatic poetry of the Dittisham episode draws its imagery from the stock of experiences of the boy at the centre of it. And as Parrot’s language brings him to life for us on the page, so it also brings to life the people he meets and engages with: Mathilde Christian, his wildly creative artist wife (‘she with the fragrant oil paint still beneath her nails, my gorgeous creamy-skinned, raven-haired, plump-armed, nestling, rutting, smiling creature’); Amelia Godefroy, Olivier’s sweetheart (‘She was like a willy-wagtail, I thought, lifting up her feathers and singing, bless her. A bird in the hand, bush too, her eyes alight, her laughter everywhere’); and – perhaps Parrot’s most original creation – the strange genius Algernon Watkins, who forges banknotes day and night bent double in a priest hole in the depths of Piggott’s Elizabethan house.
One of young John Larrit’s jobs is to take Watkins his sandwiches and remove his slops. To do this, he must crawl through a tight passageway accessible only from the inside of a big old fireplace. This is his first impression of the engraver:
He was a fright, I won’t pretend he wasn’t. For although he was a young man and had therefore often walked the earth and seen the sun, he seemed, at that moment, like one of those transparent creatures they say live in rivers far below the earth. His hair was fine as silk, and long and white, not like the English but the Swedes. His forehead was very tall, and so white and smooth it seemed as if it must be carved from ivory. He had pale projecting eyebrows, and eyes like water.
Parrot goes on to describe Watkins as ‘uncanny’ and ‘excitable’, ‘ugly but graceful’; ‘his eyes were as frail as plover eggs, the prey of raging boys.’ When Piggott’s house burns down, Watkins, the water creature, appears like a vision of the apocalypse on the flaming roof:
A fiery angel had appeared upon the roof, its hair ablaze and streaming upward, fire right down its spine. It ran along the ridge and flew into the air, smashing into an old oak through whose ancient branches it crashed noisily before passing out of sight. Three others followed, forgers rising like hatchlings in the night, their cries beyond the edge of nightmare.
This is the last we hear of Watkins until Parrot meets him again in New York, where he is busily impersonating John James Audubon, obsessively absorbed in his life’s project: the greatest book of bird engravings the world has ever seen – Birds of America. Watkins is horribly disfigured, ancient looking: ‘His pale blue eyes peered out from his own tattered skin as if they were prisoners inside the trunk of a blackened antipodean paperbark.’
Back in the Dittisham days, Watkins had tutored the young Larrit in the rudiments of engraving. As an adult, Larrit is haunted by the idea that he has wasted his talent, failing to become the artist and engraver Watkins believes he could have been. This we are merely told; what we know first-hand is Parrot’s way with words. He is a natural writer with a writer’s interest in the inner life of words: ‘I said cheat and felt the teeth in it, the cleat, the cut, the eat.’ The poetic rightness of his language is such that we never ask the question whether it is historically appropriate (is this really early 19th-century idiom?) and it has none of the character of an assumed voice. Carey and his novel speak from within Parrot and what he writes has the quality of what Lacan called ‘full speech’. Olivier’s speech, by comparison, is often ‘empty’, its wheels spinning free of necessary meaning.
The uneasiness and thinness of Olivier’s idiom, its lack of a complex expressive character, is partly the result, I think, of its close dependence on its historical sources. Just as he used the Jerilderie Letter to find a voice for Ned Kelly in True History of the Kelly Gang, so here Carey bases his impersonation of Tocqueville on the writings of Tocqueville and Beaumont. But where the Jerilderie Letter is an original, Carey uses modern translations of Tocqueville and Beaumont to pitch his idiom for Olivier. However good the translation, there’s always something rootless and linguistically indeterminate about translated language, and George Wilson Pierson in 1938 and Gerald Bevan in his 2003 edition of Democracy in America, though giving us perfectly serviceable renderings of Tocqueville and Beaumont, do not attempt to create a defined early 19th-century voice. But it’s the words of these translators that Carey imports into his novel and their words from which he derives Olivier’s utterances. The very fact that you wouldn’t necessarily notice the many verbatim quotations from these sources – they are strewn throughout the book – shows how ‘successfully’ Carey has used his chosen stylistic algorithm to generate Olivier’s text.
In one sense, of course, the contrast between the quality of Olivier’s and Parrot’s language works to reinforce the central point about them as characters: Parrot is centred, incarnated, true, Olivier too much in his head, too little in the world; Parrot is his own man, Olivier the product of his class and his upbringing; Parrot has lived, Olivier has yet to learn to live; and so on. But the laws of fiction are harsh and you can’t sacrifice interest to characterisation. It’s one of the hardest things in imaginative writing to portray boring or limited or silly characters without sounding silly or boring or limited (this was Francis Jeffrey’s point about Wordsworth’s poem ‘The Idiot Boy’). Good satire achieves this apparently impossible trick, delivering entertainment to the reader while depicting someone who is far from entertaining (Mrs Bennet, for example). Novelists and novel readers are blind and deaf. Where the words in a novel fail to conjure up a vivid world for the mind’s eye, the reader will drift away. The Olivier chapters in Carey’s novel are cleverly and consistently crafted, but I found while reading them that I was mentally turning the pages, impatient to get back to Parrot.
Parrot and Olivier in America is much preoccupied with the subject of freedom. Prisons and imprisonment crop up all over the novel and inform its imagery. The question of what it means to be a servant and the value of true service is explicitly at the centre of Parrot’s relationship to Olivier: indeed, this aspect of the book could be seen as a fictional elaboration of the chapter in Democracy in America entitled ‘How Democracy Alters the Relations between Master and Servant’; the novel’s conceit is that Olivier actually writes this while he is in America (Tocqueville simply amassed notes). Meanwhile, the book sketches out a couple of blueprints for what a practicable life of freedom might look like. There are two versions of arcadia in Parrot and Olivier in America: the first located on Dartmoor, where Parrot and his ‘Da’ live their footloose idyll, unencumbered by property, sleeping under the stars, ‘stubbly with goodness’ as Larkin might have described them; the other, in antebellum America and specifically in rural Connecticut, on the estate where Amelia Godefroy and her family live – ‘Old Farm’, with ‘its aesthetic balance, the good order of its fences, the clean white clusters of its barn and stables’. These fragile pastorals are in different ways unsustainable for Parrot and Olivier: Parrot’s world is engulfed in darkness from one day to the next, and Olivier must learn that the promised land he sees in Amelia Godefroy’s America is not one that he is able to enter. There is real poignancy in Olivier’s failed love affair with Amelia. Whether it is America or Amelia that he has fallen for, they seem to beckon him towards a new kind of freedom, a release from the shackles of his social conditioning and in particular his subservience to a powerful mother. The scene where it finally dawns on Olivier that, though he can imagine living with Amelia in America, he could never take her back to France, and that on these terms she will not live with him, is genuinely touching.
The strangest thing about Olivier de Garmont is that he is constrained less by his mother and his upbringing than by his status in the novel as a somewhat pale derivative of a powerful historical precursor. Where Parrot is a fully-fledged fictional character, Olivier is, for most of the book, a figure in bas-relief whom we cannot walk around. If anyone is a parrot in the novel it is he, not John Larrit: for he is partly made of other people’s words repeated verbatim, and his route through the novel could be thought of as a journey from word to incarnation, from text to human being. Ironically, it is through the humiliation and heartbreak of his rejection by Amelia that he achieves a degree of independence. At the end of the novel, the figure that Parrot sees trudging up the road, weighed down with bags, ‘proceeding … in the manner of a beetle with a ball of dung’, is no longer in any recognisable sense Tocqueville. In his moment of greatest diminishment, Olivier at last becomes a fictional character with a full identity of his own.
Carey’s borrowings in Parrot and Olivier in America are intriguing. The configuration of Olivier de Garmont is evidently an exercise in literary pastiche, and Carey plays a game of hide and seek with his sources: he quotes them as excerpts from Olivier’s ‘writings’ (the report on prisons, for example), embeds them in his text where Olivier’s story directly mimics Tocqueville’s (Olivier’s descriptions of New York and the habits of New Yorkers or his impressions of the Fourth of July parade in Albany) and transposes them from a different incident in the historical record (Tocqueville’s description of his visit to Niagara Falls grafted onto Olivier’s visit to the Kaaterskill Falls). It’s all part of a sophisticated exploration of the border zone between fact and fiction. More startling, perhaps, are the traces of other texts in the Parrot chapters. I found only two instances of this: the first is when Parrot and Olivier arrive in New York; the second in the scene in which they visit the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. Here’s Tocqueville arriving in New York by boat (in Wilson Pierson’s translation):
At sunrise we approached New York, entering its harbour, consequently, from the back … Picture to yourself an attractively varied shoreline, the slopes covered by lawns and trees in bloom right down to the water, and more than all that, an unbelievable multitude of country houses, big as boxes of candy, but showing careful workmanship – add to this if you can – a sea covered with sails, and you will have the entrance to New York from the Sound.
We entered new York by the back door next morning … It was such pretty country – luscious bays cut into the slopes which were covered by lawns, a great variety of ornamental trees growing right down to the water, and so many large houses, which I would later hear called cottages. They looked like big boxes of chocolate, and from the windows the owners at their leisure could admire the brigs, gondolas, and boats of all sizes crossing in every direction.
The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was a panopticon where the prisoners were kept in strict solitary confinement for the entire duration of their sentences. When Tocqueville visited it, he surprised everyone by asking to interview the prisoners individually and wrote up these conversations as an appendix to his treatise. In Carey’s novel, Parrot transcribes these interviews for Olivier (correcting his English all the while), and quotes a chunk of Tocqueville’s notes on Prisoner Number 108 (again in the Wilson Pierson translation rather than the first translation by Francis Lieber, made in 1838 and, therefore, one might have thought, a better source, though the differences aren’t great). Parrot is appalled by Olivier’s detachment. His own view coincides with that of Charles Dickens, who visited the same prison in 1842 and wrote of his distress in American Notes. Dickens wrote:
Between the body of the prison and the outer wall, there is a spacious garden. Entering it, by a wicket in the massive gate, we pursued the path before us to its other termination, and passed into a large chamber, from which seven long passages radiate. On either side of each, is a long, long row of low cell doors.
I was the one who should have been the French commissioner, I thought, following my duck-legged aristo through the wicket gate of the Eastern State Penitentiary, passing between clipped privet hedges into a central chamber from which seven long passages radiated like spokes on a Catherine wheel. On either side of every spoke was a long row of low cell doors.
Dickens: ‘The first man I saw, was seated at his loom, at work.’ Parrot: ‘The first poor devil we visited was seated at his loom.’ Dickens:
He has a Bible, and a slate and pencil … His razor, plate, and can, and basin, hang upon the wall … During the day, his bedstead turns up against the wall, and leaves more space for him to work in. His loom, or bench, or wheel, is there; and there he labours, sleeps and wakes, and counts the seasons as they change, and grows old.
He has a bible, a slate and a pencil. His razor, plate, can and basin hang upon the wall. His bedstead turns up against the wall, which leaves more space for him to work in. He labours, sleeps and wakes, counts the seasons as they change, and grows old.
What are we to think of this? Well, for a start, it sets one wondering quite how much of Parrot and Olivier in America is derived from other texts – an amusing MA thesis perhaps. And if it turns out that the novel is partly an extravagant patchwork of other people’s writing, why should this matter? Is it faking or making? Forging or forgery? Or is it making through faking – a subtle and playful game of intertextuality from the author of Theft, My Life as a Fake and His Illegal Self? I think your answer to this will depend on the degree of pleasure the novel gives you. I found myself liking Parrot and Olivier in America more and more as I came to know it better, and to recognise its ‘plagiarisms’ as integral to its character.
Coleridge defined the creative imagination as a power that ‘disimprisons the soul of fact’. Parrot and Olivier in America embodies its own ideal of freedom in the imaginings of Parrot, but also in the imaginings of his author. We can best think of the novel by analogy with a certain kind of sculpture – Picasso’s, for example – where the artist builds something playful and new out of found objects: a bull out of a bicycle saddle and handlebars, a baboon’s head out of the die-cast model of a motor car. Carey’s novel is an exuberant parade of impersonations and a wonderful bricolage of found texts: Tocqueville’s, Beaumont’s, Dickens’s, quotations from newspapers, the original Prospectus for Audubon’s Birds of America, and goodness knows what else. And everything points to the fact that Carey is having fun: the mention of his wife’s maiden name (Coady), for example, on the page where Parrot recognises the bliss of his life with Mathilde; or the bizarrely random inclusion of three illustrations – a drawing of an early bicycle, a reproduction of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People and an unidentified early map of Australia – whose function mainly seems to be to say ‘we’re here because we want to be, so go fuck yourself, mate.’
Jack Larrit, Parrot’s father, is described at one point in the novel as ‘full of birds’, a phrase I take to mean free-spirited, as in ‘as free as the birds’ (or ‘as free bloody birds’ – Larkin again). There are birds all over Parrot and Olivier in America, real and figurative, and they carry the message of an ideal freedom, high in the empyrean, drunk on the unknowable sea spray, free to fly wherever they choose, no respecters of boundaries or rules, and free to make free with whatever they can find to build their nests. It’s a good way to think of Carey himself – full of birds, like Jack Larrit – writing a novel that strides across time and the world; Peter Carey’s carefree novel, his couldn’t-care-less-what-the-critics-say novel, a novel written for his own delight. And if we are to think of him as himself a bird, it should not be as a parrot, but as a magpie, and not any old magpie, but as that ultimately virtuoso bird: the Australian magpie, capable of mimicking more than 35 different species of birds as well as dogs and horses, and whose carolling at dawn or dusk in the outback is one of the strangest and most beautiful things in creation. In the words of the narrator of His Illegal Self: ‘The cries of the Australian magpie, like nothing else on earth.’