Many have judged Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot a “delightful” reading experience. However, my own encounter with the book do not tally with such praise. The impression Flaubert’s Parrot’s protagonist made on me was that of a narrator purposefully avoiding his own traumatic experiences by displacing his energy towards an endless narration of Flaubert trivia – from a chronology of Flaubert’s life from various points of views, an exposition of Flaubert’s relation with animals in his life and works, a discourse on Flaubert’s description of Emma Bovary’s eyes, Flaubert’s visits to England, Flaubert’s hatred for trains, the books he planned but was not able to write, the story of Flaubert’s mistress, a rebuttal of criticisms of what Flaubert represents, and so on and so forth.
The opening chapter about the mystery of Flaubert’s parrot thus expands into a comprehensive investigation of Flaubert himself, a clever screen for the narrator’s own guilty conscience as later on revealed towards the end of the novel. A pity for the parrot to have been made a thin excuse to begin such a lopsided narrative. “Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own,” writes Barnes. Perhaps I was not paying attention on the way the narrator’s obsession with the late French novelist – the choice of details and themes unveiled throughout the novel spoke of his own story.
I was largely indifferent to the endless barrage of facts and anecdotes about Gustave Flaubert and his works by the narrator, a retired doctor, and Flaubert scholar. It simply failed to touch a chord. That novels like this have sprouted everywhere like mushrooms in recent decades is expressive of a particular socio-political condition. The persistence of a world capitalist system that prioritizes individual profit over collective need goes side by side with the elevation of a hedonistic bourgeois writer to the pedestal as the bearer of individual creativity and artistic beauty.