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The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith

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Book Overview

This description may be from another edition of this product. From a writer whom Thomas Keneally calls "one of the great figures on the cusp of the millennium" comes a novel that conjures an entire world that suggests our own, but tilted on its axis--a world...

Customer Reviews

5 ratings

a remarkable book: also, how to decode it

This is a book I read several years ago, and have recently revisited. It's weird, but haunting. I am a bit surprised (and proud?) that I seem to be the only one on the web to decode the politics and language of the book. As the other reviews make clear, the novel tells the story of a highly intelligent, observant, severely handicapped child growing up in an alternative-universe version of Earth in which Europe seems to be geographically intact, but the Western and Southern hemispheres are quite different. In the obvious place of North America is the Dutch-speaking nation of Voorstand, which economically and politically dominates the globe and is fighting an unspecified cold war of some sort. The novel concerns the politics and culture of an English-speaking Southern hemisphere island nation, which might be Carey's native Australia or perhaps New Zealand. The analogies and the political points are made clear by the coded language in the 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.

Pathos, poignant, wrenching, and hopeful

This remarkable book defines new territory between literary fiction and science fiction. It offers up a ringside seat to broad, concentric human and political themes that are likely to ring true many decades hence. The plot intricacies are tight, verging on being too clever, but Carey manages to lean towards the believable, producing a provocative and original book. I did not find the foreign words distracting or difficult, as did some readers. I think knowing more than one language helps. But don't let it deter you; Carey provides a glossary and footnotes to aid you in understanding the story.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

A novel of deep themes and insight

A recent article in Canada's GLOBE AND MAIL referred to Peter Carey's THE UNUSUAL LIFE OF TRISTAN SMITH as "the best book ever written about U.S. cultural dominance over Canada, even if that's not what Carey had in mind." Once I read that, I knew I must find the 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,

A book well worth reading

I picked up this book while browsing through the book store and decided to give it a try - it surpased any of my expectations. It is part satyre of our society and pure brillance. It's very hard to put down, but when you finish it, you'll wish there was more!

Funny, sad, thrilling and thought-provoking

To thoroughly comprehend this book, it probably helps to be Australian: although set in mythical nations Efica and Voorstand, it quite brilliantly explores the love-hate relationship which Australians have with American culture. However, tbe book never takes itself too seriously, and moves easily between comedy, tragedy and adventure. A book not to be taken on holiday, because you won't be able to put it down.
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