October 29, 2011 3:17:30 am
The Discworld floats through space on the backs of four elephants which are in turn borne upon the back of a massive cosmic turtle. Its an impossible world,suffused with magic and governed by Narrativium,the force of story. It is here that Terry Pratchett has set nearly forty novels.
His most recent,Snuff,focuses on Samuel Vimes,commander of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. Fans of the series have followed Vimess progression from lowly policeman and recovering alcoholic,through various stages of promotion (and marriage to an aristocrat) to a position of great power. He is flawed,prejudiced,constantly insecure about his new position and fundamentally decent all of which make him a favourite with Pratchett fans.
In Snuff,Vimes and his wife Sybil take a holiday to her ancestral home. Pratchett often plays with genre tropes,and at first this is an obvious nod to the country house murder mystery. But Vimes soon discovers that the crime that has taken place is both darker and more widespread everyone in the village seems involved or implicated,and the result is something closer to The Wicker Man than Agatha Christie.
Reviews of non-realist fiction often point out in tones of surprise that these books can still comment intelligently on the real world. Recent Discworld books have been built around versions of the information age,religious fundamentalism and racial discrimination. In Snuff,Pratchett takes on another rather significant (and particularly horrible) piece of real world history the slave trade. For the most part this is well done,but it all falls horribly apart at the end. Discworld books,however dark they may be,have reasonably happy endings and something as vast and awful as this simply cannot fit into that sort of framework.
Part of the joy of series fiction is that it offers a far greater opportunity to watch characters develop. In addition to Vimess own development over several books,many minor characters have been fleshed out and given stories of their own. Sybil Ramkin,Vimes wife,has in previous books remained in the background,important to the plot but given very little development as a character. Here she is a character in her own right. So is Willikins,the manservant (think Jeeves,but with more concealed weaponry),who has in previous books been used partly for comic effect and mainly as a symbol of Vimess changed social status. Most delightful of all is Vimes and Sybils son Sam,now six years old and making a detailed forensic study of all the animal excreta that can be found in the country. Its a clever reminder that the way in which small children experience the world is itself a sort of deductive science.
The author is known as a writer of comic fantasy,but in Snuff the humour is comparatively muted. Young Sams unfortunate hobby provides a number of jokes and theres a running gag about the use of avec in French (or on the Disc,Quirmian) food,but theres none of the laugh-a-page hilarity of the earlier books. Even the footnotes,through which much of the comedy in these books is played out,have been been reduced. Where Pratchetts wordplay comes to the forefront it is brilliant; a visit to Quirm has Vimes walking along the Rue de Wakening,and a barge named the Wonderful Fanny makes multiple appearances.
The novels featuring the City Watch have begun to follow a rather similar pattern of late,and there is much about Snuff that is entirely predictable. But the warmth,the cleverness and the basic decency that come with every new Pratchett book are precious,and we should treasure them while we can.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.