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The Green ParrotReview - The Green Parrot
by Princess Marthe Bibesco
Turtle Point Press, 1994
Review by Heather C. Liston
Mar 31st 2001 (Volume 5, Issue 13)

This compact volume, by Princess Marthe Bibesco (1886-1973), has the thrilling depth of human emotion one expects of a Russian novel, without the characteristic intimidating size. Although Bibesco herself was a member of the Romanian nobility, and the daughter of that country's minister of foreign affairs, her story of exiled Russian aristocrats living in Biarritz hints of autobiography. Written in French in 1924, the book was translated into English by Malcolm Cowley in 1929, and his translation was reissued by Turtle Point Press in 1994.

The small book's large subjects almost seem to announce themselves in bold type. It is about, in order of appearance, GRIEF, LOVE, DESPAIR, TRANSCENDENCE OVER DESIRE, BEAUTY, REINCARNATION, INCEST, MENTAL ILLNESS, and SUICIDE. It is also about exile, wealth, war, and the shifting of power in 20th-century Europe. Many of these issues, both personal and global, figured significantly in Bibesco's own life. (For more background on her, see Enchantress: Marthe Bibesco and Her World by Christine Sutherland, Seamus Heaney, and Derek Walcott, 1997) And yet, in spite of its grand themes, The Green Parrot trips gently along, revealing its secrets through the voice of a middle daughter who seems quite sane, whose only mission appears to be the sorting out of her strange family's sad history. Without ever mentioning her name, the narrator creates an intimate bond with her readers.

The central event in her parents' lives is the death of their beloved son, Sasha, at the age of eight, which the parents take as a judgment of God against their union. The parents are first cousins, exiled from Russia by his father because of their semi-incestuous marriage. At first they believe their son's birth is proof that the marriage was blessed; his premature death brutally twists the interpretation. The births of five daughters only intensify the parents' grief: years after his death, Sasha's is still the only birthday they celebrate. The girls are raised by servants and largely ignored, even as the mother continually fantasizes about what her precious boy would be doing had he lived. These fantasies gradually delude her until she believes he is living and that, among other things, he's winning the Great War for Russia (which takes place in what would have been his early thirties.)

Finding very little love or connection available near at hand, the narrator searches for answers to some of the family's mysteries, and for solace in her loneliness. Though married for a time, she loves completely only twice. The first occurs when she is eight years old (the same age at which her revered brother died) and walking to church with her mother. The eponymous green parrot suddenly lands on her muff. The bird symbolizes spring for her, and life; it speaks with a human voice when so few of the humans around her seem able to . . . and it alights purposefully on her, as if it is a messenger direct from God. For many years, she dreams of owning the parrot herself and finally, in her inability to possess it, learns yet another sad lesson about detachment.

The second great love of her life is her youngest sister Marie, a great beauty and the image of herself, so closely identified that the connection, for both of them, is almost a kind of self-love. But the permeating, mysterious love that guides and defines the narrator as well as so many others--the love that prefigures her relations with both the parrot and her sister--is that for the long-dead brother she doesn't even remember. Is this incest? If so, how tragic is it? How destructive?

Our heroine says of "the guilty passion of brother for sister and sister for brother": "This love kindled in those of the same blood--a blood that seeks after and prefers itself, that finds gratification in itself alone--does it belong to one era rather than another?" As she learns more about her own family, she finds that the guilty passion does, in fact, transcend eras. The ancestor she most resembles (who engages in forbidden relations with her own brother) has the "strange disease . . . called manic-depressive insanity or folie circulaire," her mother is clearly out of touch with reality, and her second sister, Elizabeth, is committed to an asylum, diagnosed simply as "mad." Does incest cause madness? Or vice versa? Are both unavoidable aspects of having royal blood?

The truth about this family's small gene pool unfolds with apparent inevitability. At the same time, though, some of the revelations are so surprising they give the reader chills. The beautifully-written novel moves seamlessly between tender love story, intriguing family history, and thriller, tempting a reader to consume it all in one sitting.

First Serial Rights © 2001 Heather Liston

Heather Liston studied Religion at Princeton University and earned a Masters degree from the NYU Graduate School of Business Administration. She is the Managing Director of the National Dance Institute of New Mexico, and writes extensively on a variety of topics. Her book reviews and other work have appeared in Self, Women Outside, The Princeton Alumni Weekly, Appalachia, Your Health and elsewhere.


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