Flaubert’s Parrot is a Proustian exercise in searching for, recovering, and analyzing the past—Flaubert’s, Braithwaite’s, everyone’s. In the final chapter, the narrator meets the oldest surviving member of Croisset’s Societe des Amis de Flaubert. This man recalls that the curator of Flaubert’s Croisset museum applied in 1905 at Rouen’s Museum of Natural History for the parrot which had served Flaubert as the model for Loulou. He was taken to the museum’s bird section and there given his choice of fifty Amazonian parrots. When another Flaubert Museum was established in Rouen after World War II, the same procedure was followed. In each case, the parrot which most closely resembled the bird described in “Un Ciur simple” was selected. Braithwaite draws the only logical conclusion: “So you mean either of them could be the real one? Or, quite possibly, neither?”
Having a neatly nuanced sense of irony, Braithwaite gracefully accepts the failure of his chase after the authentic Flaubertian parrot: “Well, perhaps that’s as it should be.” Being both intelligent and sensible, he recognizes that the joke is on him and on the reader. Behind every parrot is another parrot; behind every truth is another truth. The Past with a capital P remains elusive; Truth with a capital T is a chimera. All man can do is delight in the search for the sake of the search; in a fundamentally romantic way, the journey is itself the goal. Thus, the essential Gustave Flaubert remains undiscovered and undiscoverable—as does the essential Louise Colet, Geoffrey Braithwaite, Ellen Braithwaite, you, I, everyone. Julian Barnes has written this novel as a reminder that the most probing questions have only mysteries for answers.