Friday, 23 November 2012

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

In the alternate universe of Carey’s 2010 novel, Olivier de Garmont is a thinly disguised cipher of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French political thinker who travelled to the USA in the nineteenth century and wrote Democracy in America after his observations there. In this version of events, Olivier is accompanied by a frustrated artist called Parrot, who has the misfortune to end up working as the former’s servant.


Carey flits between the two narrators – cynical, world weary Parrot and cosseted, naïve Olivier – although it could be argued that the whole text is in fact written by Parrot, who acts as Olivier’s secretary in an effort to hide the fact of the noble’s atrocious handwriting.

In his travels across the US, Olivier meets and falls in love with Amelia Godefroy, the daughter of a prison owner in Connecticut. Smitten, he allows himself to be taken on a tour of the south by his prospective father-in-law, a journey that does not bode well for his already parlous health.

After several weeks on the road, they make it as far as South Carolina, where their guest house boasts a wine list of some providence:

I forget the name of our hotel except it was considered the best place in Charleston. Godefroy had written to secure our lodging while we were still in Georgia. What he wrote, I do not know, but clearly an impression had been made, for although we arrived late at night we were greeted with much bowing and scraping and a boy was sent to the chef with an order to keep the fires alive. The landlord then held us under close engagement – I presumed to cover any likely delay in the kitchen – so by the time we were seated at table we knew he had purchased the cellar of the late Thomas Jefferson and had himself driven all the way to Monticello to collect his loot, sleeping beneath his carriage on return as he feared he would be robbed of his treasure by bandits or oenophiles or worse. Who knows how much he paid for his fifty cases? More, certainly, than he could afford, for we had been but a moment in the dining room – a place of extraordinary pretension – when hew as looming over us ready to discuss his carte de vin.

It’s the perfect opportunity for Olivier to indulge in a touch of wine snobbery:

He presented us each with his wine list explaining, ha-ha, that it would have been a good deal longer if my countryman Lafayette had not had such pleasure from it. I thought him tedious. Godefroy raised an apologetic eyebrow as the man happily recounted how the late president had died impoverished, and he had managed to get a great bargain from the estate. “The prices, monsieur,” the landlord said to me, “will gratify you, I am sure.” Grave-robbing to one side, the list saddened me, for it was not what you would expect in the cellar of a head of state. There was a Bergasse, a wine mixed together in some cellar in Marseille which was labelled claret in the English manner, also some Blanquette de Limoux, a great deal of Minervois and Languedoc. Only a Beune Grèves Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus seemed to rise above the ordinary.

Clearly the evening has not got off to a good start, and when Olivier finally leaves America, he has failed to secure Godefroy’s daughter’s hand in marriage...

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