The Discworld, travelling through space on the back of Great A'Tuin, a Giant Star Turtle, in the original cover art by Paul Kidby.
Show Hide image

“There’s no justice. There’s just us”: Helen Lewis on the politics of Pratchett

A common misconception about Pratchett’s work is the fantasy setting divorces it from the real world. Nothing could be further from the truth.

“He is, of course, writing about us,” A S Byatt observed of Terry Pratchett. “He is good at policemen, businessmen, fraudsters, murderers, banks and shares, and at music with rocks in it besides, as well as at goblins, witches, dragons, trolls and dwarfs.”

One of the commonest misconceptions about Pratchett’s books is that their fantasy setting somehow divorces them from the real world and its concerns. But as the Discworld series developed, its themes became increasingly political (with both a big and a small “p”). Take Feet of Clay (1996), possibly my favourite in the series. It is an interrogation of power as an ancient vampire herald called Dragon, King of Arms searches obsessively for the “true ruler” of the city-state of Ankh-Morpork –while Captain Carrot, the only living descendant of the last monarch, steadfastly refuses to acknowledge that he is the heir, preferring to serve in the City Watch. (His boss Samuel Vimes, incidentally, is a descendant of the last man to kill a king of Ankh-Morpork.) Vimes’s hatred of authority prompts the Machiavellian Patrician to keep giving him aristocratic titles just to annoy him.

Set against this is another plot strand: the desperate attempts by the Golems (creatures formed from clay and kept as slaves by human beings) to make themselves a king. The Golems are given life by the sacred words in their heads, but they fill their king’s mind with so many hopes and obsessions and aspirations that he is driven mad. You might not notice all this on a first reading – you’ll be too busy laughing about a bull that thinks it’s two bulls because each of its eyes has a different field of vision – but it’s in there.

Similarly, Going Postal is about capitalism. It tells the story of a notorious conman given a second chance if he promises to revive the Post Office. This is a shambolic bureaucracy, but one that offers steady jobs to the old and the slightly simple – unlike the rival “clacks”, a semaphore system where equipment is run into the ground and profit is put before the workers’ safety.

In among the sweeping themes are pointed vignettes: in Small Gods (1992), it turns out that only one person sincerely believes in the state religion, despite its enthusiastic enforcement by an inquisition. (This being Pratchett, a deity’s corporeal manifestation is in direct proportion to the strength of belief, resulting in the god Om taking the form of a one-eyed tortoise.)

In Jingo (1997), a new island appears in the sea between Ankh-Morpork and the nearby state of Klatch, prompting both to prepare for war – and culminating in Vimes trying to arrest both armies for a “breach of the peace”. In the earlier Equal Rites, a girl discovers that she’s a wizard, rather than a witch, and tries to enrol at the men-only Unseen University (an eccentric organisation that will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in academia).

The moral cores of the series are Vimes and the witch Granny Weatherwax, characters to whom Pratchett has returned again and again. Both are feared –Weatherwax’s nickname from the trolls is “She Who Must Be Avoided” and to the dwarves she is “Go Around the Other Side of the Mountain” – but they are also unbending in their principles, fiercely loyal and protective, and unafraid to take the right decision even if it is hard and unpopular. As Death – another recurring character – says in Reaper Man (1991): “There’s no justice. There’s just us.”

Read Laurie Penny's interview with Terry Pratchett and the New Statesman leader "Facing Death (and Binky)" about the significance and afterlife of his work.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The plot against the BBC

DREW KELLY/NEW YORK TIMES/REDUX/EYEVINE
Show Hide image

Yiyun Li: Can reading help you conquer depression?

In her memoir of depression and reading, Yiyun Li speaks to all those with unquiet minds.

Most sufferers of severe depression will tell you that the condition is incommunicable: it cannot be expressed, except through metaphors, and then those, too, are pitifully inadequate. How does one talk about a great, centrifugal force that spins the self away to fragments, or towards annihilation, leaving no stable, immutable self to write about?

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (the title is a quotation from a letter by Katherine Mansfield) is a memoir of depression and reading, and the first work of non-fiction by the acclaimed Chinese-American writer Yiyun Li, whose books include the prize-winning debut collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers and The Vagrants, her astonishing and bleak first novel. In Dear Friend, she grapples with the question that lies at the heart of books as diverse as William Styron’s Darkness Visible and Andrew Solomon’s Noonday Demon, but from the outset Li swerves away: she never once mentions depression by name, talking instead about “a difficult time”, or her mind being in “poor shape”, and about “this emptiness in me”.

A severe reluctance to talk about herself has led her to devise a way of writing about emotions in a forensically intellectual manner, subjecting each feeling to the rigours of close reading and an investigation-by-argument not a million miles from the practice of philosophers. In fact, the first chapter of the book is divided into 24 short subsections, of anything between four lines and just over a page: a collection of thoughts, observations, memories, aphoristic distillations, even propositions.

This sets the formal template for what follows: the titles of the subsequent chapters lead one to expect thematic unity, but the greater coherence comes from Li’s overarching project in Dear Friend of thinking about time. She starts out with the notion that the book “would be a way to test – to assay – thoughts about time. There was even a vision of an after, when my confusions would be sorted out.” To talk of a “before” and “after” is to acknowledge an intervening present; all posit an experience unfolding in time. But right from the start she is acutely conscious of a self-defeating task: “To assay one’s ideas about time while time remains unsettled and elusive feels futile.”

This compulsive argumentation and dissection of feelings into ever finer strands can produce the occasionally cloudy culmination, usually aphoristic or epigrammatic in style, almost always paradoxical. Even context fails to illuminate fully, for example, these sentences on Elizabeth Bowen: “‘The moment one is sad one is ordinary,’ she [Bowen] wrote. But that is not enough. The moment one feels anything one feels fatal.” Or: “To say nothing matters is to admit that everything matters.” Li’s emotions are thoughts, a pre-emptive mechanism to salvage a frangible self; perhaps this is the only way one can talk about an illness that eats the very faculty that produces thought. “As a body suffers from an auto-immune disease,” she writes, “my mind targets every feeling and thought it creates.”

Slowly, a bare-bones biographical narrative emerges: an immature, unstable monster of a mother; a quiet, fatalistic and long-suffering father; episodes from a childhood in China; a career in science cast aside for writing; two stays in hospital for serious depressive episodes (we find out their exact nature only in the afterword).

But, other than the self-consuming mind, the one constant running through this ­deliberately fractured memoir, like a flowing stream whose noise is always present, sometimes near, sometimes far, is the theme of reading. Here, too, Li is original in her approach, in describing how writers speak to her unquiet mind or to the darkness at her core. Take her love of biography or writers’ correspondence. She tells us that it springs from “the need – the neediness – to find shelter from one’s uncertain self in other lives”. It is heart-rending to read that she finds her “real context” in books: “. . . all that could not be solved in my life was merely a trifle as long as I kept it at a distance. Between that suspended life and myself were these dead people and imagined characters. One could spend one’s days among them as a child arranges a circle of stuffed animals when the darkness of night closes in.”

Li is a writer who has made her name in the lyrical-realist school, producing pellucidly moving works that enrich our understanding of psychological interiority and affect, so it is not surprising to note her admiration and love for Turgenev and Chekhov, Mansfield, John McGahern, William Trevor, Stefan Zweig, Bowen. More unpredictable, at least when these first occur, are the names of Marianne Moore, Graham Greene and Philip Larkin; the Moore and Larkin connections with her life are particularly unexpected when they unfurl.

There is a beautiful and profound chapter on renouncing her mother tongue – even though Li never wrote in Chinese – and the decision to adopt English. She gives the ­penultimate chapter of her book, fittingly, to the writer who has mattered to her most: Trevor, a writer she “aspired to be”, “to see as he does”. At the end of her assay there is a sense of endurance; this book is “an experiment in establishing a truce with what cannot be changed”, a terribly beautiful gift to the reader, who will always remain locked in her own life as the author is in hers.

Neel Mukherjee’s most recent novel is “The Lives of Others” (Vintage)

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit