The Picaresque as Australian Political Satire

НазваниеThe Picaresque as Australian Political Satire
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The Picaresque as Australian Political Satire:

Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

Kate Feros


This paper investigates the ways in which Peter Carey employs the underlying assumptions and techniques of the picaresque in his novel The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. I argue that the picaresque mode of writing can be identified by the presence of a particular type of protagonist, story structure, style and predominant motifs. I argue that because the picaresque mode inherently raises questions about the construction of dominant discourses, in the Australian context, this mode can be used to raise questions about the construction of Australian nationalism. As a result, Peter Carey’s use of the mode in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith suggests the possibility of alternative definitions of the Australian nation to the limited repertoire of definitions used in nationalist discourses.


The picaresque is a form ideally suited to the postcolonial objective of exploring and then subverting some of the ossified discourses of postcolonial societies like Australia. It provides a means of exposing inconsistencies or contradictions within dominant discourses. This means that, as a mode of writing, it has the ability to raise questions about the construction of national identities. The picaresque functions in a number of ways but, fundamentally, it tends to raise questions about the relationship between fiction and ‘reality’ (Blaber and Gilman 1990: 27). As Blaber and Gilman argue, “[i]nevitably the manner in which we construct other representations, histories and evaluations is called into question” (1990: 27). In a postcolonial situation, then, nationalist myths are exposed to ridicule by highlighting the artificiality or constructedness of all narrative.

Anderson suggests that any national identity is an invention, “a cultural artefact” (1983: 13). The task of defining the nation provides the terms for an assertion of a common identity in order to establish both political and cultural cohesion within the nation and difference from the values and structures of foreign powers. In Australia’s case, this sense of difference from the imperial power is augmented by the settlers’ sense of difference from Australian indigenes. Australian identity is constituted or articulated in discourses that make distinctions between imperial and settler relations and settler and indigenous relations.

What it means to be Australian is also articulated, however, through certain recurring patterns of representation (Turner 1993: 70). These stereotypical definitions of the nation have certain political ramifications. To the extent that they are uniform, become consolidated, they do not represent the diverse nature of the Australian experience or the Australian culture and they effectively exclude those Australians or experiences which do not ‘fit’ the stereotyped definition of Australia.

I assume that it is particularly appropriate to look at Australian writing through the frame of reference of the picaresque because Australian national identity is constructed partially in terms of the larrikin figure. The figure of the larrikin in the literature of Australia is used both for parody and self-parody. In other words, the larrikin figure is used both to mock the pomposity and authoritarianism of city folk (associated with the ‘feminised’ English) and also to mock the larrikin’s own masculinist or ‘white male’ characteristics. The picaresque, likewise, is both a parodying and self-parodying mode of writing. It parodies the conventions of the travelogue, the confessional and the romance and its own conventions (Blaber and Gilman 1990: 21).

The idea that the picaresque is a particularly apt form of writing in the Australian postcolonial context is augmented by the fact that Australia’s foremost writer, Peter Carey, uses it. The purpose of this paper is to investigate what Peter Carey targets through the use of the picaresque mode of writing and its underlying assumptions. To that end, I detail the features of the picaresque mode of writing and, following an outline of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith’s plot, I argue that Carey uses the picaresque mode of writing in this novel to target the ramifications of the neo-colonial relationship on the development of a national identity. Because the picaresque mode inherently raises questions about the construction of dominant discourses, in the Australian context, this mode is used to raise questions about the construction of Australian nationalism. As a result, Peter Carey’s use of the picaresque mode in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith suggests that the postcolonial nation’s ‘authentic’ national identity will be constructed in a hybrid manner. This suggests the possibility of alternative conceptions of the Australian nation to the limited and ossified repertoire of definitions in common use.


While critical writing on the picaresque is diverse, there appears to be a general consensus that the picaresque can be considered as an open-ended narrative, episodic in structure, which features roguish protagonists who satirise by adopting and acting out the mores and behaviours of their degenerate societies. In “The Nature of Picaresque Narrative: A Modal Approach”, Ulrich Wicks (1974) argues that in defining the picaresque we can, at best, only posit the picaresque as a series of protocols which we continually (re)negotiate in our encounters with different novels. This implies that no single novel will display all of the protocols that collectively define the picaresque as such. Rather, each individual text will engage with each of the protocols to varying degrees.

The picaresque is defined by the presence of a particular type of protagonist, story, style and recurring motifs. The protagonist of the picaresque mode of writing, as a picaro, is usually male; unheroic in appearance, behaviour and class origin; inconsistent in actions and thoughts and contradicts his narration by his actions (Riggan 1981). The picaro tends to resort to trickery to attempt to gain what others have achieved by hard work. This generally means that he has a self-serving perceptiveness regarding people and society, but is unaware of his own defects. Because of the picaro’s inherent inconsistency of personality, society becomes a crucial determinant of his experiences and nature; it is not just the context within which he lives. Finally, the picaro usually recounts his own life or a portion thereof in his own voice and in a conscious act of writing. He is, however, an unreliable narrator.

The focus of the picaresque text is on the exposure of reality through the use of the picaro, and not on reaching a resolution of the picaro’s situation. As such, the story itself is usually episodic and includes a number of digressions, anecdotes, recapitulations and foreshadowing of key events. This multitude of possible narratives suggests that a society has an almost endless capacity for generating stories, events and new ideas. The picaresque is, I argue, a highly appropriate mode for suggesting alternative definitions of the Australian nation to the dominant one.

Wicks argues that the picaresque is characterised by its implied parody of other fictional types and of the picaresque itself (1974: 245). Parody both installs and challenges simultaneously (Hutcheon 1988: xiii). The picaresque traditionally parodies the travel book, the confessional and the romance (Blaber and Gilman 1990: 21). Its style, therefore, tends towards the post-modern pastiche of pre-existing motifs and citations. This polysemic tendency, however, is also tied to political objectives in Australian manifestations of the picaresque mode, in that it serves to reveal the calcification of social and political discourses of the nation.

While the picaresque form tends to focus on fleeting experiences, fragments and discontinuities between episodes, Wicks (1974) argues that there are a number of motifs or issues that continually recur in picaresque texts. These prominent motifs usually refer to the picaro himself and include an unusual birth and/or childhood; a trickster motif; a role-playing motif; a grotesque or horrible incident and ejection from a group or society in general (Wicks 1974: 246).


According to these protocols, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith can be read as a picaresque text. The core of the novel is its eponymous hero, Tristan. His voice determines both the tone and content of the text, as he travels around, meeting various characters and surviving on his wits. At once complicitous in and rebellious against the moral, political and cultural corruption of the societies he moves through, Tristan narrates a cheeky, defiant apologia (Huggan 1990: 1). His comments are directed towards the citizens of the patron state of Voorstand and attempt to justify or excuse his conduct in hijacking their mythology with the intent “of defrauding the citizens … and depriving them of liberties” (Carey 1994: 401).

The text focuses particularly on cultural, political and economic neo-colonialism and the effects a past history of colonialism may have on the development of a national and/or personal identity. As such, the novel involves two interrelated stories. The first deals specifically with the imaginary geography and entangled histories, customs, languages, governments and economics of two politically and culturally asymmetrical countries. The imagined worlds of Efica and Voorstand are reflections of the real world, representing respectively a client and a patron state. While direct one-to-one substitutions are frustrated in the novel, Efica and Voorstand resonate with the histories, cultures and politics of Australia and the United States of America, and will be read as such here.

The second story focuses on Tristan Smith, his family and the various characters he comes into contact with on his travels. Tristan’s personal characteristics highlight his status as a picaro. In appearance, behaviour and class origin, Tristan is unheroic to the point of grotesqueness. Having been born with multiple congenital defects, it is not unusual for people meeting Tristan for the first time to retch on seeing him (e.g. Carey 1994: 134). His behaviour is frequently self-centred (e.g. Carey 1994: 124). Using the skills he learns in the theatre, Tristan resorts to trickery to achieve his desired ends. He adopts, for instance, the costume and manner of a Voorstandish folk character in order to achieve adoration and sex in Voorstand. Like many picaros, Tristan is also an unreliable narrator. He directly contradicts himself, for instance, when he implies that he “knew no woman wanted me and I knew no woman ever would” (Carey 1994: 261), yet is phallicly fixated and spends an entire week having sex (Carey 1994: 399 ff.).

Tristan’s mother, Felicity Smith, is an expatriate of Voorstand but now lives in Efica. She is, therefore, emblematic of Tristan’s conflicting allegiances. Felicity owns and manages the political agitprop theatre, the Feu Follet Collective. Tristan has three fathers. As well as providing three alternative story lines, Tristan’s three fathers represent three possible histories or origins (Jaireth 1995: 73). Tristan’s most likely biological father, Bill Millefleur, is an actor in the Feu Follet. He ultimately abandons both Felicity and Tristan for a job in the Saarlim Sirkus in Voorstand, calling into question the efficacy of the Feu Follet’s anti-imperialist stance in the process. Felicity’s other lover is Vincent Theroux, the married chief executive of Efica’s largest pharmaceutical company (Carey 1994: 29). Vincent is active in the Efican Blue Party and engineers Felicity’s entrée into politics. The other claimant to Tristan’s paternal affections is Wally Paccione. Wally most closely fulfils the role of Tristan’s father. As Tristan explains, “He was the one who fought with me, who forced the medicine down my gagging throat, put me to bed at nine o’clock” (Carey 1994: 82). Other pertinent characters in the novel include both those who support Tristan and those who wish him enmity (although their actions often blur the distinction). The most significant of these subsidiary characters include Jacques/Jacqui who works undercover as Tristan’s nurse; the murderous VIA agent, Gabe Manzini; and Sirkus Ghostdorp owner and producer, Peggy Kram.

The text of The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith is divided into two books. Book One outlines the history, geography, politics and culture of Tristan’s home country, Efica. Tristan has a happy, if somewhat unusual, childhood. He tours Efica in the summer season with the Feu Follet, learning about his nation’s geography, culture and history. It is not surprising, then, that despite being born with multiple congenital defects, Tristan decides to become an actor. The Feu Follet Collective, however, disbands after Felicity has an argument with Bill in which Bill makes disparaging remarks about the effectiveness of the theatre’s anti-imperialist politics. After Bill moves to Voorstand permanently, Felicity turns to Vincent and decides to run as a candidate for the reformist Blue Party for a seat in the Efican parliament. This decision exposes her and her family to the machinations of the representative of the Voorstand Intelligence Agency (VIA), Gabe Manzini, who is determined to preserve Efica’s alliance with Voorstand. Book One ends with Felicity being murdered when it appears likely that the Blue Party will win the election. The first book, then, draws close analogies between life in the theatre and life in politics (Fletcher 1997: 54).

Despite the fact that Book Two opens with Tristan spending eleven years in hiding in the Feu Follet, writing political pamphlets, the second book is the more overtly picaresque of the two. It is in this book that Wally, Tristan, and his nurse Jacques/Jacqui, travel to Voorstand, meet various characters along the way and survive by their wits. Partly to disguise his deformities, Tristan adopts the guise of Bruder Mouse, a Voorstandish folk hero. He wears the gutted remains of a computerised Simulacrum of Bruder Mouse and, with the aid of a voice-patch that allows him to be clearly understood for the first time, finds sex, adoration and desire in the capital city of Saarlim. Wally engineers a reunion with Bill, who introduces Tristan to Peggy Kram, the agoraphobic Ghostdorp owner and Sirkus producer. Tristan spends an entire week satisfying Peggy’s quasi-religious/sexual fantasies, but when he removes his Bruder Mouse disguise, she is horrified at his true visage and tries to have him arrested. The book ends with Tristan, Bill and Jacqui fleeing Voorstand.


Carey develops his post-colonial agenda of investigating and analysing the effects of colonialism in The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. In particular, the text explores the endless variety of the postcolonial experience, especially as it manifests itself in settler societies like the USA and Australia (Bliss 1995: 104). Carey’s two imaginary countries of Voorstand and Efica, therefore, embody the real world political positions of a powerful and a submissive state respectively. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith takes as its thematic focus the varied forms of neo-colonialism – political, cultural and/or economic – acting on a small, ex-colonial nation struggling to establish an indigenous cultural identity.

  • Political interference

The text is primarily concerned with issues of cultural imperialism. Carey does, however, include instances of political and economic interference in the internal affairs of the client state. In The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Voorstand’s interference in the internal affairs of Efica extends to the undermining of Efica’s economic, social and political systems. Efica is depicted as being saturated with Voorstandish subversions and agents. Voorstand sends its chief undercover “vote-dokter” (Carey 1994: 98), Gabe Manzini, to Efica primarily in order to correct a “full-scale national misunderstanding – that they could renegotiate their alliance with Voorstand. … This was Efica, for God’s sake, with neither military nor economic power” (Carey 1994: 202). The VIA acts as one tool of Voorstand’s neo-colonial aspirations (e.g. Carey 1994: 217).

The VIA’s agents protect Voorstand’s interests in Efica by subverting the democratic process. The novel charts Gabe Manzini’s maintenance of the Voorstand alliance by the manufacturing of “evidence of crooked land deals, bribes from foreign arms dealers and aircraft manufacturers, the normal VIA menu of destabilization” (Carey 1994: 310). Electoral ‘dirty tricks’ employed by Gabe Manzini include the manufacture of “One scandal one day, a new one the next” (Carey 1994: 223). He also publishes photographs and reports that link Vincent and Felicity’s affair to Vincent’s wife’s supposed ‘suicide’ (Carey 1994: 214). The ‘normal VIA menu of destabilization’ even includes the “political assassination” (Carey 1994: 220) or murder of Efican citizens (Carey 1994: 307). Both Vincent’s wife (Carey 1994: 218), and Felicity Smith (Carey 1994: 220) are killed by VIA operatives in order to prevent the reformist Blue Party from winning the Efican parliamentary elections and thereby ending the Voorstand alliance.

Voorstand subverts Efica’s democratic process for self-serving reasons. Not only is Efica used to provide conscripts to “fight Voorstand’s war in Burma and Nepal” (Carey 1994: 311), but “Efican territorial waters supplied 25 per cent of Voorstand’s fish, … the northern islands provided a safe storage place for chemical waste. …[and] Efica’s southern granite islands were now host to fifteen vital subterranean defence projects” (Carey 1994: 202-3). In short, it seems entirely reasonable that Felicity “did not like the way your country used us” (Carey 1994: 6). Fittingly, the Efican secret service is even called the “Department of Supply” (DoS) (Carey 1994: 35f), signalling Efica’s role in the neo-colonial relationship between the two countries.

  • Economic imperialism

Carey supplements these instances of Voorstandish political interference in the internal affairs of Efica with examples of economic imperialism, suggesting that neo-colonisation relies on a ‘layering’ of various forms of domination. The text, therefore, emphasises the linkage between political and economic interests. Vincent Theroux, for instance, embodies this connection between politics and business in his professional life, since he “was not merely the chief executive of a large company, he was also an important strategist for the Blue Party” (Carey 1994: 56).

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