The Picaresque as Australian Political Satire

НазваниеThe Picaresque as Australian Political Satire
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The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith’s focus on political, economic and cultural neo-colonialism draws attention to the residual effects of colonisation on the development of a national identity. Carey raises the idea that part of the project of establishing a postcolonial national identity may include determining to what degree it should represent a reaction against the values of the imperial power. Part of Carey’s project in this novel is to investigate whether or not “children decide how they are going to grow?” (Carey 1994: 322). Carey draws close analogies in the text between familial and national relationships. The fact that the novel begins by casting doubt on the identity of Tristan’s biological father (Carey 1994: 13), then, seems to be intended to unsettle or destabilise the founding myths of postcolonial nations like Australia.

Carey appears to have an ambivalent attitude towards notions of cultural identity. On the one hand, he appears to advocate the notion of a true, authentic and ongoing self. Felicity, for instance, is still a Voorstander despite her Efican citizenship, her Efican nationalist cultural agenda and her political ambitions. Indeed, Tristan introduces Felicity by noting, “My maman was one of you. She was born in Voorstand” (Carey 1994: 6). Carey suggests that countries have certain unique, fundamental and immutable attitudes and values. Neither residency nor affiliation denote belonging. As Bill observes, “We are ‘creatures of our place’” (Carey 1994: 394).

On the other hand, as Hassall indicates, Carey appears to suggest that an authentic postcolonial cultural identity is “heavily hybridised by political and cultural invasions” (1996:143). Additionally, the novel is populated primarily by actors, stage managers and Sirkus producers. This suggests that identity is literally a performance. The Feu Follet, for instance, quite overtly sees itself as engaged in the project of “inventing the culture of its people” (Carey 1994: 50). The novel is, therefore, concerned with the “imperative of making oneself, not in the sense of donning a disguise, … but in the sense of self-composition” (Bliss 1995: 104).

The novel addresses “the notion of a plastic, malleable world” (Dessaix 1994: 18). This theme is played out by a number of characters donning disguises and masks. Carey investigates the enabling and/but restricting effects of disguises in the novel. This malleability of culture, however, is mostly addressed in the novel in terms of identity being performatively enacted. Rather than positing a complete, finished cultural identity, The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith tends to focus on the “ongoing process of historical and cultural self-definition” (Kane 1993: 522). Carey claims that in his work he is interested in postcolonial national identity because “You have a sense … that you can do anything. The page is still blank. We really can make ourselves up” (Wachtel 1993: 104). There is a sense, however, that Tristan’s attempt to reconcile with Bill in the second book stresses the idea that before a new beginning can be made, “accounts need to be settled with the past” (Huggan 1996: 54). Wally argues, “we’ve come to Saarlim so you can make peace with your father” (Carey 1994: 302). It is only after this has occurred, that Tristan’s new life begins (Carey 1994: 414).

In The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith, Carey targets the repercussions of the neo-colonial relationship on the development of a national identity. Carey’s use of the picaresque mode in this text serves to expose some of the inconsistencies or contradictions within dominant discourses of nationalism within postcolonial settler societies like Australia and the USA. He, therefore, implies that rather than constructing a single, unified national identity, a postcolonial national identity is the performative enactment of the various political, economic and, above all, cultural influences on the nation. A postcolonial nation’s ‘authentic’ national identity is inevitably hybridised.


Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Blaber, Ronald and Marvin Gilman. 1990. Roguery: The Picaresque Tradition in Australian, Canadian and Indian Fiction. Springwood, NSW: Butterfly Books.

Bliss, Carolyn. 1995. “Time and Timelessness in Peter Carey’s Fiction – The Best of Both Worlds” Antipodes 9(2): 97-105.

Bradley, James. 1997. “Bread and Sirkuses: Empire and Culture in Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith and Jack Maggs” Meanjin 56(3-4): 657-65.

Carey, Peter. 1994. The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith. St Lucia: University of Queensland Press.

Coe, Jonathan. 1994. “Principia Efica” London Review of Books 16(18): 5.

Dessaix, Robert. 1994/5. “An Interview with Peter Carey” Australian Book Review 167: 18-20.

Fletcher, Don. 1997. “Peter Carey’s Tristan Smith as Paraplegic Picaro” Australian Journal of Comedy 3(1): 52-7.

Hassall, Anthony J. 1996. “Power Play: The Sirkus in Peter Carey’s The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith” In Ommundsen, W. and H. Rowley (eds) >From a Distance: Australian Writers and Cultural Displacement Geelong: Deakin Uni Press.

Huggan, Graham. 1990. “Is The (Gunter) Grass Greener On The Other Side? Oskar and Lucinde In The New World” World Literature Written in English 30(1): 1-10).

Huggan, Graham. 1996. Peter Carey. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hutcheon, Linda. 1988. A Poetics of Postmodernism. New York: Routledge.

Jaireth, Subhash. 1995. “A Mis-en-Scene in the Feu-Follet Theatre in Chemin Rouge” Overland 139: 72-4.

Kane, Paul. 1993. “Postcolonial/Postmodern: Australian Literature and Peter Carey” World Literature Today 67(3): 519-22.

Pierce, Peter. 1996. “Captivity, Captivation: Aspects of Peter Carey’s Fiction” In Petersson, I. and M. Duwell (eds) “’And What Books Do You Read?’ New Studies in Australian Literature” St Lucia: Uuniversity of Queensland Press. pp.140- 150.

Riggan, William. 1981. Picaros, Madmen, Naifs and Clowns: The Unreliable First-Person Narrator. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Turner, Graeme. 1993. Making it National: nationalism and Australian popular culture. NSW: Allen and Unwin.

Wachtel, Eleanor. 1993. “’We Really Can make Ourselves Up’: An Interview with Peter Carey” Australian and New Zealand Studies in Canada 9: 103-5.

Wicks, Ulrich. 1974. “The Nature of Picaresque Narrative: A Modal Approach” PMLA: publication of the Modern Language Association of America 89(1): 240-9.

Willbanks, Ray. 1997. “Peter Carey on The Tax Inspector and The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith: A Conversation with Ray Willbanks” Antipodes 11(1): 11-16.

Woodcock, B. 1996. Peter Carey. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
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