The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith Paperback – 8 Oct 1997
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"Irresistible...intimate and theatrical...supple and surprising.... We're in the hands of a master storyteller." Carol Shields, author of The Stone Diaries
"Carey has vaulted to the top ranks of writers in the English-speaking world.... Tristan has an appeal that transcends geography." "Newsday"
"Carey's always magical, absolutely lovable narrative voice makes The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith an important contribution to contemporary fiction.... No matter what he decides to write or how he decides to write it, it's a priviledge to read him." Carolyn See, "Washington Post Book World"
"Savage and hilarious...dazzling." "The New York Review of Books"" --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is an inventive romp by Peter Carey, the Booker Prize-winning author of Amnesia, Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang.See all Product Description
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Top Customer Reviews
The novel is set in a fully-realised and densely enveloping parallel Earth, where the geography is different but international power inequalities are the same. Tristan Smith is born, with short-limbed dwarfism and severely cleft lip and palate, to an actress mother in the third-world tropical archipelago of Efica. Spurned by many on account of his appearance, he is raised with hopeful love by his mother (with the help of three very different surrogate "fathers"), until she becomes involved in political activities against the capitalist superpower Voorstand: the Voorstander equivalent of the FBI then fakes her suicide. Tristan and one of his three fathers now travel to Voorstand as illegal immigrants to seek their fortune: once there, Tristan (dressed in a cartoon mouse suit to conceal his deformities) takes an unwitting but effective revenge on Voorstand high society.
Clearly this can be read as political satire, with Voorstand as the U.S.A. and Efica as the archetypal third world nation; but this is only one of Carey's concerns in this strange and complex book. The novel has all of Carey's usual thrilling pessimism (in the sense that he tells it like it is), but has a more upbeat ending than most of his fiction. Tristan and his mother are both very movingly drawn, and his three fathers are equally fine creations in their different ways. Probably a love-it-or-hate-it book, but I'd strongly urge you to give it a go.
One of the Efican islands is home to Tristan Smith, born in the local hospital, and snatched away before his mother can see him. But his mother, Felicity, is made of stern stuff and soon snatches him back. There she takes off his clothes and sees properly what sort of creature she has. A flap for a mouth, tiny arms and legs, a thin little chest, but to compensate his eyes are blue, flecked with sharp golden strips and flecks. There doesn't seem much hope for the kid, but there are plenty of people around to look after him, including three putative fathers. Felicity never tells any of them they might not be the father, but it makes no difference. The fathers, and the theatre-complex into which Tristan is born, are richly characterised - they are an unconventional troupe, activists and artistes, and many of them play a part in the story. Eventually, the scene changes to Voorstand and the Sirkus comes into play, where one of Tristan's fathers dances on the backs of Arabian horses and Tristan finds his first real role as Bruder Mouse.
Carey invents a whole folklore for both Efica and Voorstand, and one has to admire his creative abilities.Read more ›
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The main character, Tristan Smith, has an unusual voice, not just in the physical sense, but in the sense of being the story-teller of not only the events he experienced, but also those he didn't, or was too young to remember. One cannot help but think him impulsive, willful, egotistical. It would be easy to dislike him, yet Carey must have realized Tristan's `voice' could not have been otherwise, for he was both pampered and neglected and sheltered from normal human contact, an upbringing that protected him, on the one hand, but also impeded him socially, on the other. The reader will also appreciate the irony of a man's true character being glimpsed only when he wears a mask, and the truism that a nation's character is revealed by how they treat `the least of these, my people.'
In contrast to Carey's book, we get a pretty steady diet of stories about handicapped people who triumph over impossible odds, who experience `miracle healings,' who attain a magical status, who project what we want to see, that is, they appear to be happy because they are shunned if they honestly share their pain as well as their triumphs. Thus, I believe it took real courage to write and publish this book. Carey candidly, poignantly reveals a closeted inner life, the rarely revealed or imagined existence of a person with severe limitations, the stark, impossible-to-countenance realities that we simply avoid in our daily thoughts and deeds. In the tradition of a good storeyteller, the author punctuates these revelations by surrounding Tristan with artistic/acrobatic performers, humanity's most physically blessed individuals and by nations gripped in the same struggles for survival that people experience on an individual level. This backdrop emphasizes just how deeply Tristan's powerful inner soul cries out from inside his shell that he wants the same, feels the same, IS the same right down to his genes... Carey bares the pain, the challenge, in both the inner life and the political life of the beautiful versus the not beautiful, the big versus the small, the powerful versus the powerless in the colors of blood, and laser lights, and tarnished festivals that emphasize the moment over long-term everyday courtesies and, through the maturation and evolution of the character, through the small blessed events that we selectively choose to define our humanity and our lives, that give us the stamina and drive to endure, to go on, to hope.
This book is not for everyone. It is not for the reader of light entertainment. It is a book that goes beyond surface themes while still retaining the format of a personal story, told through unforgettable characters and events. If that intrigues you, I highly recommend this book.
To my surprise, TRISTAN is far more than the above quote suggested (although it is accurate). Carey uses the cultural dominance of one fictional country over another as a launching pad for a terrific, semi-futuristic romp through the truly unusual life of Tristan Smith, an actor/juggler with more than a few problems.
Tristan is born and raised in Efica, a small, ignored colonial country that has been fighting a long battle to be free of the machinations of it's much larger neighbour and protector, Voorstand. (While Carey likely intended this as a metaphor to the relations of Australia and England [or New Zealand and Australia], the Canada/U.S. connection comes through loud and clear.) Tristan is born to an acting family, consisting of Felicity Smith (mother/actor), Bill (father/actor), Vincent (possible father/backer), and Wally (father figure/protector). It leads to much confusion and anarchy in Tristan's life, but it's nothing compared to his real handicap.
Tristan is deformed, in a way Carey refuses to clearly define, leaving it up to our imagination. He has translucent skin, mangled legs, malformed chest, no lips, and is quite small. Often, he refers to himself as a 'squid', if that helps in picturing his physique. He might have grown up to have his own life, but due to his dependance upon the kindness of others, he finds himself caught up in schemes and plans that soon lead to his being considered a traitor and possible liability by Voorstand authorities. It sounds confusing, but Carey moves the plot forward in an extremely logical fashion.
Being unable to function on his own, Tristan becomes the ultimate observer of life, and gains an understanding of human nature that may be ignored by its more active participants. But like humanity, Tristan longs to be loved, to be accepted, and when he inadvertently takes on the persona of a religious icon of Voorstand, he comes closer to his dream.
Carey must have realized that using real countries might alienate the reader, and has succeeded in creating two completely real fictional countries, both similar and distinctly different from our own. A religion, based on animals named Bruder Mouse, Bruder Duck, etc., has been devised to explain the increasingly bizarre behaviour of the citizens of both countries. Carey never goes into too much detail, allowing the reader to see the absurdity of the practices, and also pointing out the folly of our own beliefs. It reminded me of the astonishingly vague religion Philip K. Dick created for DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP?, a mish-mash of theories and modes that lends itself to the insanity of that paricular novel. TRISTIAN's religion involves lifelike cyborgs of animated characters, which run rampant through Voorstand, often bursting onto flames, yet adored and revered by the public. It is not so important that we understand it, as it is that the characters believe it.
There is also a political subplot that underlines the story, as Tristan's mother is an ardant and important supporter of Efica's Blue Party, a left wing organization that exists on a platform of increased freedom from Voorland's reach. This is contrary to the existing power of the Red Party, which is manipulated by Voorstand agents.
Carey's talent lies in never hitting the reader over the head with the metaphors. Like the best novels, it can be read simply for pleasure's sake. It is only upon reflection do the deeper themes emerge. The Voorstanders' inability and unwillingness to comprehend the ways of Efica, and the Eficans' intolerance yet love for the ways of Voorstand, is a theme that can find parallels in almost every country you can think of.
THE UNUSUAL LIFE OF TRISTAN SMITH is an intimate portrayal of one individual. It is a political allegory. It is a retelling of the Christ parable, on par with Robert Heinlein's STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND. It is a particularly fine novel.
The big imperial power is called Voorstand (pseudo-Dutch for "stands for", get it? It "stands for"...the US. There is also a sexual connotation). The smaller Southern-hemisphere nation is called Efica, whose name is Dutch for the letters F, I and K, which spells something rude (and obvious) in Dutch. One of the ways in which Voorstand spreads its power is through its be-kind-to-animals religion, which is inextricably coupled with the entertainment industry called the Sirkus. The three central characters of this religion/entertainment are Bruder Mouse, Bruder Dog and Bruder Duck -- i.e. Mickey, Pluto and Donald. Don't worry, I am not ruining the plot with these observations. This is actually a wonderful book, but it helps to have some linguistic hints. It is a book about humanity, art and politics -- about freedom both political and artistic. Tristan, the central character, also "stands for" something: for how freedom survives, even though it occasionally falls humiliatingly flat on its face, in circumstances of oppression. What's great about the novel, though, is that it is not a tract, but a sprawling, complicated, often hilariously funny world delightfully different yet delightfully identical to ours. I love weird details like the sirens on trucks that sound when the drivers dare to exceed the speed limit.
The other bit of code is, of course, the reference to a much older sprawling work -- "The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy" (whose initials Tristan Smith shares). But don't worry, Carey's book is much more readable.