Mar 14 2017

Jingo by Terry Pratchett

Apparently quite a number of people thought that Terry Pratchett was jolly. Perhaps that was because he wrote books that are laugh-out-loud funny, occasionally overflowing with terrible puns, full of affection for most of their characters, and bursting with absurdities, most particularly the absurdity of living people rubbing up against each other. Perhaps people thought he was jolly because he was, by all reports, affable and unassuming in person. Perhaps it was the hat, or the beard, or both together.

I don’t see how anyone reads a book like Jingo and comes out of it thinking that Terry Pratchett is jolly.

The trappings of the story concern how two great powers go to war, how small incidents get magnified, how a dispute between neighbors escalates to the point where killing vast numbers of them seems a perfectly reasonable solution. There is a disputed territory; there are diplomatic incidents; there is an upsurge in patriotism, a rush to take the king’s shilling, even if there is no king, and to flock to the ancient regimental colors, even if they were chosen just yesterday. Because Jingo is a Discworld book, there’s a degree of slapstick in the precipitating incident: fishermen from different countries, who are usually content with stealing each other’s catch, find themselves squabbling over an island that has suddenly appeared. Meanwhile their sons would just as soon go home, or at least trade provisions so that nobody has to do without warmth or food.

With war brewing between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch, Pratchett shows the heightened atmosphere it brings, the desire to serve a higher purpose that draws Sir Samuel Vimes’ butler to enlist and do his bit, along with the uglier side of mobs gathering to attack the businesses of Klatchians in the city. Some of the Klatchians, including those born and raised in Ankh-Morpork, begin to organize for self-defense, which the mob sees as proof that it was right all along. Other people of Klatchian background rush to the armed forces to prove their loyalty. Even rumor of war closes up the civil space where people had just gotten on with their ordinary lives.

Vimes, the commander of the Night Watch, winds up in the middle, trying to uphold civic order. He isn’t much of one for war, either.

Vimes shook his head. “That always chews me up,” he said. “People killing one another just because their gods have squabbled—“
“Oh, they’ve got the same god, sir. Apparently it’s over a word in their holy book, sir. The Elharibians say it translates as ‘god’ and the Smalies say it’s ‘man.’”
“How can you mix them up?”
“Well, there’s only one tiny dot difference in the script, you see. And some people reckon it’s only a fly dirt in any case.”
“Centuries of war because a fly crapped in the wrong place?”
“Could have been worse,” said Carrot. “If it had been slightly to the left the word would have been ‘liquorice.’” (p. 160)

It’s not just the strictures of religion, properly understood or otherwise, that send people onto the battlefields and thence to their graves. A different culture can suddenly look threatening when seen in a different light. And ignorance, especially ignorance of what’s close at hand, is a potent fuel for that particular fire.

Vimes shook his head. Carrot was good at picking up this sort of thing. And I know how to ask for vindaloo, he thought. And it turns out that’s just a Klatchian word meaning “mouth-scalding gristle for macho foreign idiots.”
“I wish we understood more about Klatch,” he said.
Sargeant Colon tapped the side of his nose conspiratorially.
“Know the enemy, eh, sir?” he said.
“Oh, I know the enemy,” said Vimes. “It’s Klatchians I want to find out about.”
“Commander Vimes?”
The watchmen looked round. Vimes narrowed his eyes.
“You’re one of Rust’s men, aren’t you?”
The young man saluted.
“Lieutenant Hornett, sir.” He hesitated. “Er … his lordship has sent me to ask you if you and your senior officers would be so good as to come to the palace at your convenience, sir.”
“Really? Those were his words?”
The lieutenant decided that honesty was the only policy.
“In fact, he said ‘Get Vimes and his mob up here right now,’ sir.” (p. 161)

But as the exchange above shows, Pratchett is not content to stop with condemning war and ignorance. That would be a jolly send-up of folly. Pratchett’s deeper subject is power, who has it, how they got it, and what they do with it. And that brings out a different register in the writing. As Neil Gaiman put it:

“There is a fury to Terry Pratchett’s writing: it’s the fury that was the engine that powered Discworld. It’s also the anger at the headmaster who would decide that six-year-old Terry Pratchett would never be smart enough for the 11-plus; anger at pompous critics, and at those who think serious is the opposite of funny …
“And that anger, it seems to me, is about Terry’s underlying sense of what is fair and what is not. It is that sense of fairness that underlies Terry’s work and his writing…”

Inherited power is one target of Pratchett’s fury.

… at the head of the table was Lord Rust. The Patrician wasn’t there.
He was half surprised. That is, at a certain shallow level he thought, that’s odd, I thought you couldn’t budge the man with a siege weapon. But at a dark level, where the daylight seldom penetrated, he thought: of course. At a time like this men like Rust rise to the top. It’s like stirring a swamp with a stick. Really big bubbles are suddenly on the surface and there’s a bad smell about everything. Nevertheless, he saluted and said:
“Lord Vetinari on his holidays, then?”
“Lord Vetinari stepped down this evening, Vimes,” said Lord Rust. “Pro tem, of course. Just for the duration of the emergency.”
“Really?” said Vimes.
“Yes. And I have to say that he anticipated a certain … cynicism on your part, commander, and therefore asked me to give you this letter. You will see that it is sealed with his seal.” …
“I see, sir,” said Vimes. “You wanted me?”
“Commander Vimes, I must ask you to take the Klatchians resident in the city into custody.”
“On what charge, sir?”
“Commander, we are on the verge of war with Klatch. Surely you understand?”
“No, sir.”
“We are talking about spying, commander. Sabotage, even,” said Lord Rust. “To be frank … the city is to be placed under martial law.”
“Yessir? What kind of law is that, sir?” said Vimes, staring straight ahead.
“You know very well, Vimes.”
“Is it the kind where you shout ‘Stop!’ before you fire, sir, or the other kind?”
“Ah. I see.” Rust stood up and leaned forward.
“It pleased you to be … smart with Lord Vetinari, and for some reason, he indulged you,” he said. “I, on the other hand, know your type.”
“My type?”
“It seems to me that the streets are full of crimes, commander. Unlicensed begging, public nuisances … but you seem to turn a blind eye, you seem to think you should have bigger ideas. Bout you are not required to have big ideas, commander. You are a thief-taker, nothing more. Are you eyeballing me, Vimes?”
“I was trying not to turn a blind eye, sir.”
“You seem to feel, Vimes, that the law is some kind of big glowing light in the sky that is not subject to control. And you are wrong. The law is what we tell it to be.” (pp. 164–66)

Pratchett does not emphasize that last sentence, but it’s one of the most chilling in the book. Not least for how it echoes in our world.

Inherited power with nothing but pretense behind it is worse than just run-of-the-mill aristocracy.

“I know what you’re doing, Vimes, and I am not going to rise to it,” [Rust] said, taking a step back. “In any case, you have had no formal training in arms.”
“That’s true,” said Vimes. “You’ve got me there, right enough. No-one ever trained me in arms. I was lucky there.” He leaned closer and lowered his voice so that the watching crowd wouldn’t hear. “Y’see, I know what ‘training in arms’ means, Ronald. There hasn’t been a real war in ages. So it’s all prancing around wearing padded waistcoats and waving swords with knobs on the end so no-one’ll really get hurt, isn’t it? But down in the Shades no-one’s had any training in arms, either. Wouldn’t know an épée from a sabre. No, what they’re good at is a broken bottle in one hand and a length of four-by-two in the other and when you face ’em, Ronnie, you know you aren’t going off for a laugh and a jolly drink afterwards ’cos they want you dead. They want to kill you, you see, Ron? And by the time you’ve swung your nice shiny broadsword they’ve carved their name and address on your stomach. And that’s where I got my training in arms. Well … fists and knees and teeth and elbows, mostly.”
“You, sir, are no gentleman,” said Rust.
“I knew there was something about me that I liked.” (p. 196)

But even unearned power poorly exercised, with all of the consequences falling elsewhere may not still state the full scope of the problem.

Someone’s behind this. Someone wants to see a war. Someone paid to have Ossie and Snowy killed. Someone wanted the Prince dead. I’ve got to remember that. This isn’t a war. This is a crime.
And then he realized he was wondering if the attack on Goriff’s shop had been organized by the same people, and whether those same people had set fire to the embassy.
And then he realized why he was thinking like this.
It was because he wanted there to be conspirators. It was much better to imagine men in some smoky room somewhere, made mad by privilege and power, plotting over the brandy. You had to cling to this sort of image, because if you didn’t then you might have to face the fact that bad things happened because ordinary people, the kind who brushed the god and told their children bedtime stories, were capable of then going out and doing horrible things to other ordinary people. (pp. 198–99)

Or later:

“He wants to start a war …” Vimes had to open his mouth because otherwise there was no room to get his around such a crazy idea. This man who everyone said was honest, noble and good wanted a war. …
How could you deal with someone who thought like that? Vimes asked himself. A mere murderer, well, you had a whole range of options. He could deal with a mere murderer. You had criminals and you had policemen, and there was a sort of see-saw there which balanced out in some strange way. But if you took a man who’d sit down and decide to start a war, what in the name of seven hells could you balance him with? You’d need a policeman the size of a country. …
What damn good was something like [the baton indicating his Night Watch rank]? All it really meant was that he was allowed to chase the little criminals, who did the little crimes. There was nothing he could do about the crimes that were so big you couldn’t even see them. You lived in them. (pp. 346–47)

Jingo has its funny moments, its furious moments, even, as above, its bleak moments. In the end, though, Pratchett writes comedies in the ancient sense as well as the funny sense. There is a bedrock decency that he gives to almost all of his characters; it’s a foundation for his books as sturdy as a great turtle swimming through space with four elephants on its back. Vimes draws on that to outwit aristocrats and to work toward an outcome that lets ordinary people get back to doing ordinary things, without the temptation to add horrors.

If I have a worry about Jingo, it’s that in the end Vimes’ decency and the Patrician’s cynicism can work so closely without apparent consequence for Vimes. That’s probably necessary for the book to be a comedy rather than a tragedy, but it still strikes me as improbable. In a way that, say, golems and trolls made of stone are not. On the other hand, the Patrician may not be quite as cynical as he lets himself be regarded.

“I’m sure, if ever there is a king in Ankh-Morpork again, he will choose to ratify my decision,” said Vetinari smoothly. “And if there never is a king, well, I see no practical problems.”
“I’m bought and sold, aren’t I?” said Vimes, shaking his head. “Bought and sold.”
“Not at all,” said Vetinari.
“Yes I am. We all are. Even Rust. And all those poor buggers who went off to get slaughtered. We’re not part of the big picture, right? We’re just bought and sold.”
Vetinari was suddenly in front of Vimes, his chair hitting the floor behind his desk.
“Really? Men marched away, Vimes. And men marched back. How glorious the battles would have been that they never had to fight!” He hesitated, and then shrugged. “And you say bought and sold? All right. But not, I think, needlessly spent.” (pp. 406–07)

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