Customer Review

25 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hammers or Dolphins?, 24 Feb 2010
This review is from: Parrot and Olivier in America (Paperback)
Here's a picaresque novel,stuffed full of far-fetched invention and fauviste symbolism: it is an immense pleasure to read.

French aristocrat and English/Australian misfit come together in mutual suspicion and dislike to make a grand tour of the infant democracy which is the America of President Andrew Jackson. Divided by birth, experience and expectations, the two are shown to have more than just their humanity in common: it is their experience in America, both when they are together and when they are apart, that draws them together in final, uncompetitive, friendship.

The writing is extraordinarily vivid, and would be a pleasure, even if the plot of the novel were even less plausible or coherent than it is, and if all the unities came together in the two staves of the improbable duet to which Mr.Carey has so ingeniously set them.

One sentence to give an impression: here is Plymouth Harbour on a dreary day in the 1790s: 'We passed under the noses of the cannons, and the lapping sea was poison mercury beneath the grey sky, chicken guts and potato peels gathering around the towering hulls' - leave out the cannons, and substitute beer cans and crisp packets and you could almost be in Dover ferry port today.

The only people likely to have a problem with this novel are those who know anything about the period or the personalities involved. Mr Carey has provided a thoughtful list of Acknowledgments which admit his substantial debt to the literature surrounding the great Alexis de Toqueville - although, as he ingeniously observes,'a bibliography [is]as useful to the reader of a novel as a hammer is to a dolphin.'

The reader who explores the bibliography will, nonetheless, learn much about the way in which seeds of fact sprout into luxuriant growths of imagination in the mind of the inspired novelist.

Olivier is not de Tocqueville, and Mr Carey is perfectly entitled to make the point that a novel is not a history. And yet... and yet...Mr Carey expressly identifies himself, although modestly, as taking a 'minor place in the back row' of the 'full-throated choir' in the 'world of de Tocqueville' which 'seems to be filled with dissenting voices'. This is delicately, but indirectly put. After all, Mr Carey has quoted from 'Democracy in America' in passages attributed to the fictional Olivier, and in the end, his plebeian counterpart, Parrot, presumes to pass judgment on what looks as though it may be intended to be a summary of the Frenchman's reservations on that subject.

If this is meant to be a judgment on de Toqueville, then it does him less than justice. In a letter to Eugene Stoffels dated 21 February 1835, Toqueville wrote that the question in his mind was not whether attempts at democracy would lead to chaos, anarchy, looting, and murder for he was convinced that democracy might well be achieved in a manner that respected rights, preserved liberties, and respected beliefs.

The question for de Tocqueville was whether the coming democracy would be one that went forward without poetry and grandeur, but with moral order, or a chaotic and debased system, characterised either by frenzied mood swings, or 'subject to an even heavier yoke than those that had been imposed upon mankind since the Fall of the Roman Empire'.

Parrot's Judgment on Olivier is the superficial one of a man who has found in America the fulfilment of a personal dream of liberty, and perhaps it is not altogether impertinent to suggest that one can hear in Mr Carey's voice the complacent tones of a respected ornament of New York City, where, the blurb says, the Australian born novelist has lived for 20 years. It is not that Mr.Carey is unaware of greed, ruthlesness and vulgarity of American culture, for he quotes de Toqueville pointedly on them, and the twists and turns of the plot incorporate them. But in the end, it is the huge energy, variety and optimism of America that seems, for Mr.Carey, to outweigh the negatives.

But the profund implications of de Toqueville's question have not in any way been finally answered. Once asked whether he thought the French Revolution a good thing, Mao's prime minister, Chou En-Lai, sagely observed that 'it was too early say'. Historians who attempt, in due course, to answer the question will have to bear in mind one the one hand, that nazism was a 'popular' movement, 'democratically' elected and energetically supported whilst victorious by a majority of Germans, and, on the other, that western democracies, as they currently exist, are increasingly at the mercy of evil passions whipped up by minorities, pressure groups, and the media; the greed of the banks, corporations, service providers and absolutely everyone who has made money out of property speculation in the last 30 years; the craven subjection of politicians to popular enthusiasms; the continuing debasement of education, culture, and sexual and personal morals; the indifference or contempt in matters of religion; the senseless worship and pointless waste of material resources; and the prostitution in a celebrity ridden culture of all values to popular notions of what is meant by equality.

We might be better off, at least in Europe, with hammers, and not dolphins.
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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 8 Mar 2010 13:13:37 GMT
Last edited by the author on 8 Mar 2010 16:59:00 GMT
VCBF (Val) says:
Wow that's a heavy review for a book, Eusebius. You make some good points on democracy as it operates very well though.

In reply to an earlier post on 17 Mar 2010 18:34:59 GMT
Last edited by the author on 17 Mar 2010 18:39:34 GMT
I agree!

It was rather heavy.

I am more undecided about democracy than I may have appeared: ancient history suggests that democracy is an unstable and parasitic system which depends on ever-increasing and exploitative production of wealth: we, in the West, have so far seen only the rising trend.

The ruinous effect of the Peloponnesion War on Athenian culture and morals seems to me to offer interesting parallels with the effect of two great wars on the vigour and values of the modern West.

There are other elements in the mix, as to which the ancient world is no guide, the stunning impact of technological change, for example, which has made slavery unnecessary; and mass-communication which has had a levelling, if not debasing effect on cultural standards, and has, in my view, debilitated our creative energies.

Who will make music in the face of cheap reproduction, write interestingly when they can talk on the telephone, or read when they can watch television? How is the increasing debasement of news and comment in the mass media, and the increasing weight given to the views of a badly educated and misinformed public going to sustain effective government in a period of crisis?

And who will care for the life of their neighbours and communities when the State is seen as principally responsible for social and charitable initiatives?

I though Carey's book a wonderful read, but I found the accentuation of the positive and the discount of the negative a bit thumb up bum.
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