Terry Pratchett Book Club: Nation, Part I


Who is the Nation if its people are gone?

Summary

We are told a creation myth where Imo creates the world and creates Locaha, the god of death. But the world is flawed, so Locaha tells Imo to make another, better world while he looks after the mortal one. And if people are particularly good, they will be sent to Imo’s better world, but if not they will be reincarnated as dolphins until they’re ready to be people again. Captain Samson is tasked with the journey during an outbreak of Russian Influenza that has killed the King of England. He must take Mr. Black and his people (the Gentleman of Last Resort) to Port Mercia. His men will be well-paid for the journey—they must find one of the heirs to the throne and bring them back within nine months to claim their birthright according to the rules of Magna Carta. Captain Robert’s ship is lost, marooned in a forest, and there is only one human survivor (and a parrot). A boy named Mau, who has recently completed his time on Boys’ Island, is taking his canoe back to the Nation to celebrate his entry into manhood. On his journey he witnesses the largest wave he’s ever seen, and he’s uncertain what its effect has been on his people at home. He arrives back at the Nation, but his people have been wiped out by the tsunami.

Mau wakes (having barely slept), finds the bodies of his people and buries them at sea, though he blocks the memories out, thinking of himself as Locaha as he does it. A “toeless” creature leaves him food while he sleeps, and on waking he walks to the forest. The forest has been destroyed by something more than a wave—it’s the Sweet Judy, and Mau finds bodies of men from the ship. He briefly thinks that perhaps he is the one who died, but he hears the voices of the Grandfathers telling him that he is not and that he must continue the traditions of his people so that the Nation survives. Mau thinks of Granddad Nawi, a member of the village who was “cursed” by the gods because he had a bad leg. Mau talked to him once and found that Nawi didn’t consider himself cursed at all, and he told Mau a word for keeping sharks away. Later, Liu comes across a woman from the “trousermen” people, and she points a gun at him. She fires it in fear, and he sees it spark and believes she has given him the means to start a fire. He takes the gun and runs, making a fire with it, and a dinner of tubers.

On the Sweet Judy, the woman who survived the shipwreck writes a card to Mau. Her name is Ermintrude Fanshaw, and she delivers the card in the night. Mau wakes up and believes that the card’s rudimentary pictogram is telling him to throw a spear at the ship. He goes to the Women’s Place (where he was not allowed before), and gets beer to bring to the Grandfathers, who scold him for not doing everything they have commanded. He goes to meet Ermintrude who introduces herself by the name Daphne (she never liked her name), and Mau assumes she’s telling him where she’s from. She asks for his help in burying Captain Roberts at sea, which he does. When the captain’s hat bobs to the surface, Daphne tells him that the captain wants Mau to have it and she jumps into the water to get it… but she can’t swim, so Mau has to dive in after her. They both nearly drown, but Mau gets them to shore, retrieves the blanket from the ship (and accidentally releases the parrot in the cage beneath it), and watches over their camp all night. Daphne saw her life flashing before her eyes as she was drowning and remembers what brought her here: learning about geography and astronomy as a child; the death of her mother; her grandmother’s imperiousness; and her father’s insistence that he will go govern England’s island territories and that she will follow him once he’s settled.

Daphne wakes to the smell of stew that Mau has made. They both eat the stew and laugh over the fact that she keeps trying to be polite when she spits out the fish bones. Then they both fall asleep and when Mau wakes, Daphne has gone back into the jungle. Mau had considered letting himself die when he rescued her from the water, and he wants to teach Daphne his language so that someone will remember his people. He retrieves two of the god anchors at the behest of Grandfathers, large white stones that were thrown into the lagoon by the wave. Mau isn’t sure what he believes in anymore, or why he tries to keep his people’s traditions alive when they’re gone. Daphne returns with a book, and they begin to teach each other their languages so they can communicate. Then Mau draws the tsunami. Daphne shouts about a canoe, and Mau sees that one is trying to enter the island. He helps them to shore and meets Ataba (a priest from a neighboring island who studied in the Nation when he was young), a feeble young woman who will not eat, and her dying infant. Mau and Ataba argue about the gods, and Mau begins making a plan to get everyone fed so the baby will get the milk it needs to live.

Commentary

Pratchett said of Nation: “I believe that Nation is the best book I have ever written, or will write.” In fact, Pratchett said a lot of things about this book and how he writes in his acceptance of the Boston Globe-Horn Book Fiction Award for this novel.

Not to dispute him straight away (and, of course, I won’t have a complete opinion on that until I’ve finished it), but this aspect of being an artist fascinates me. In the acceptance, Pratchett talks about how he doesn’t really measure up to “real writers” who make lists and plan out their books and research things properly. And yet, his description of how he created “the best book I have ever written” is the opposite of that process in every way. What he tells us is that the narrative overtook him and wouldn’t leave his brain (despite needing to shelve the concept for a time due to the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami) until he let it out, that the story is a culmination not of specific research, but of all the knowledge stacked into his brain over a lifetime. That the characters sort of created themselves and used him as a conduit.

What he’s describing is what most writers, I think, long for in the pursuit of their craft. An act of creation that simply pours out, a story that needs to be told, a feeling that makes one more like a vessel for fable than a human being.

Buy the Book

Nation

What I do appreciate is that Pratchett never suggests that Nation is his best book because it’s somehow more high brow or artistic, two labels that have less meaning than we think, and also far more baggage than we often allow. No, Pratchett seems to feel this is his best work because of the manner in which it exited him, and I can understand that feeling. There is only one place where I’d quibble with his reasoning, which is when he notes that Nation is not a very comical book, as he is often known for. And it seems as though that is an indication to him that the book might have more artistic merit than his usual fare—so said the man who was knighted for his contributions to literature and said “I suspect the ‘services to literature’ consisted of refraining from trying to write any.”

There is a humility in that, certainly, and humor can be a shield of sorts, too. A way to sidestep the deeper darker sadder bits. And there are facets to everything, dualities and complexities abounding. Nothing is ever only one thing. I suspect that sometimes the humor was a shield, or at least something that Pratchett felt was easy for him to fall back upon, and so easy to write off.

And yet, he still knows that it isn’t. I’m certain of that because he wrote this into Nation, his purported best book:

Sometimes you laugh because you’ve got no more room for crying. Sometimes you laugh because table manners on a beach are funny. And sometimes you laugh because you’re alive, when you really shouldn’t be.

Laughter (and therefore comedy) is not a cheat or an aversion—at least not in every case. It is necessary to our ability to survive. It is built into us. And while we are all understandably wary of the person who makes everything into a joke, it is equally true that the person who believes that humor has no place in art, in life, in the making of meaning, is someone to be wary of.

I can’t say yet if I agree that this is Pratchett’s best book, but I do think it is looking more directly at the questions he is always wrestling with, and without the sly cutting edge of satire there to guarantee that his blows land. Instead, he is simply given over to people and their lives and what they think and how they feel. In the opening chapters, much of this is bound up Mau losing belief in… everything. Do I find it interesting that he chose to do this with a character whose culture is clearly an amalgam of many different folklores around the world rather than a Christian one? I suppose I do, insofar as I wish I could ask him questions about the desire to create a cultural amalgam in the first place, and also ask him whether he felt it would have been harder to tell this story from a perspective that was closer to his own lived experience day-to-day.

That said, Mau’s loss of everything leading to utter disillusion is an incredible place to begin with any character. It’s also a perfect place to ask much larger, darker questions about being, reality, and faith. As Pratchett has shown us over and over, people make meaning and belief things into being. How can you make meaning without other people? How can any of us find meaning when there’s no one to share that meaning with? And what does it say that these things cannot truly survive in a vacuum?

I have to take a moment to talk about Granddad Nawi. The segment where Mau remembers talking to him is as sharp a commentary on ableism I’ve ever seen, but particularly in the moment when Mau tells him that his word for keeping sharks away is a trick, and he replies:

“Of course it’s a trick. Building a canoe is a trick. Throwing a spear is a trick. Life is a trick, and you get one chance to learn it.”

Oh, this. This is the thing about being disabled and looking at the world around you. Our entire species is dependent upon creating things for ourselves so that we don’t die: clothes, agriculture, shelter, you name it. We are a species that exists by making modifications. But as soon as your disability is too uncommon for everyone to need the same accommodation, well… then it becomes a trick, then you become a problem. Granddad see that easily enough.

Asides and little thoughts

  • Captain Samson and his wife who will be very happy for him to get knighted, eh? I see what you did there, sir.
  • The use of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species helps to anchor the book to a time period, which is important when establishing an alternate history. Fashions and plagues and technologies can be said to occur at any point with the right events and incentives, but specific peoples and works are a far less malleable marker. So we know this story take place sometime after 1859, probably a few years following.
  • Daphne thinking on Dad Jokes: “[…] concluded that Mrs Ethel J. Bunky’s Birthday Island was a Father Joke, i.e. not very funny but sort of lovable in its silliness.” I will now call them Father Jokes.

Pratchettisms

I have been like a child playing in the sand. This is a flawed world. I had no plan. Things are wrong.

Captain Roberts went to Heaven, which wasn’t everything that he’d expected, and as the receding water gently marooned the wreck of the Sweet Judy on the forest floor, only one soul was left alive. Or possibly two, if you like parrots.

The star of Water drifted among the clouds like a murderer softly leaving the scene of the crime.

He was here on this lonely shore and all he could think of was the silly questions that children ask … Why do things end? How do they start? Why do good people die? What do the gods do?

In the Place, the gardens of the women grew the things that made the living enjoyable, possible and longer: spices and fruits and chewing roots.

What are the rules when you are all alone with a ghost girl?

Right now he gave it his bum. I fished you out of the sea, he thought. The fishes wouldn’t have left you offerings! So excuse me if I offer you my tiredness.

Next week we’ll read Chapters 5-8! icon-paragraph-end



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