GOODBYE AND THANKS, TERRY PRATCHETT

Terry Pratchett was diagnosed with posterior cortical atrophy, a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer’s, in 2007. We, author and readers, have been saying goodbye for almost 8 years, then, yet for all our readiness this is a death that catches us unawares. Couldn’t we have had more time? This is it? Sir Terry, just 66, is no longer with us and although we were lucky that he kept on writing to the very end (dictating in the last stages), it is still too little time.

His death comes, besides, not even two years after losing Iain M. Banks also too early and too unfairly. It is hard to lose them both, it feels as if very dear personal friends are gone. I think also of my doctoral student, Rosa María Moreno, currently writing her dissertation on the narrator’s voice in the Discworld series and how sad she must be feeling now. As I told her, the best possible homage is finishing the work and making sure Pratchett’s novels are preserved for posterity.

I have already written here that I started reading Pratchett 20 years ago, when my PhD supervisor in Scotland, Prof. David Punter, gently mocked my snobbish prejudice against the colourful covers of Pratchett’s novels. I have read since then 39 novels by Pratchett and 3 other volumes he has co-authored, missing just 1 Discworld novel. Since then, I have taught novels by Pratchett twice: my favourite, The Truth (number 25 within the Discworld series) and his collaboration with Neil Gaiman, Good Omens.

When I finished teaching last year my course on Harry Potter, I asked my students to please, please, please thank me, if they wished to do so, by reading one Pratchett, any novel, and see how it worked for them. I don’t know if I have made any new fans this way but I hardly see the way to teach a monographic course on his work, if only one based on a selection of 5 or 6 novels. My personal homage, by the way, is an article I was already preparing for a volume dealing with neo-Victorian fictions, on his novel Dodger, which I’ll praise for his clever recycling of Oliver Twist.

For me, Pratchett and Dickens are very close: as I have insisted here again and again they are writers one reads for the pleasure of their company, no matter what they narrate. Both have potent narrative voices, suggesting that the man behind the telling, the author, is, yes, a wise and witty man. As my student Rosa María is arguing, Pratchett had a unique way of satirizing the real world by transforming it into the blend of comedy and fantasy on which his Discworld lies. Also, as she claims, the satire works not by direct allusion but by winking an eye to the reader and making us feel part of the circle of initiates who is in on the joke.

The cast of Pratchett’s characters is very extensive, also very Dickensian in their way of appearing on the page very much alive from the first sentence introducing them. They’re all quirky in a way that would even disconcert Miss Havisham, yet they are all recognisable human beings, even the ones who/which are not human at all. I have, for instance, a silly soft spot for Otto von Chriek, a vampire iconographer (= photographer) who, being destroyed every time he uses flashlight for his photos, has the precaution of carrying a tiny flask of blood tied to his wrist. He collapses in cinders, the flask breaks, the blood remakes him. My other soft spot is for Corporal/Captain Carrot, a most decent man who would be simply overwhelmed if he only knew who he really is.

Pratchett has legions of fans and in the same many other popular classics have survived without the aid of academia, I am sure they will keep his memory fresh for generations to come. I would say, besides, that an ability to read Sir Terry in English should be a great enticement to learn the language; I have never read any translation into Spanish or Catalan but one thing I can say is that it is impossible that the humour translates well. Perhaps the same applies to the cultural references, I don’t know, though my guess is that Pratchett’s books are multi-layered, so that the older and more sophisticated the readers is the more meaning s/he grasp in his satirical voice. This does not mean, quite the opposite, that the novels are inaccessible to young or foreign readers, just that they possibly grasp only the more basic layers.

The MLA database only names 48 items dealing with Terry Pratchett works, of which only 1 is a book: Discworld and the Disciplines: Critical Approaches to the Terry Pratchett Works, a collective volume edited by Anne Hiebert and William C. Spruiell (McFarland, 2014). There is actually a second volume, the monograph Accused of Literature by Andrew M. Butler, which MLA ignores, perhaps for being that kind of work which straddles fandom and academia. Interestingly, the first item named by MLA appeared in 1992, a very brief essay by Liz Holliday for the Science Fiction Chronicle. This is 8 years after Pratchett started publishing his Discworld series, 21 since his first book. The new collective volume is, hopefully, a good sign that the academic world has finally caught on and realised that Pratchett is someone worth studying and not only worth reading. My own first attempt to explain Pratchett to local Spanish audiences, by the way, dates back to 2002: “Ídolos del fantástico popular: el gótico cotidiano de Stephen King y la sátira pseudo-histórica de Terry Pratchett” (see: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/content/other-publications).

If you’re reading this and are wondering where you should start reading Pratchett and why you should read him at all, my answer is that you can either start at the beginning, with The Colour of Magic, or just anywhere you like. I started with Guards, Guards! (1989), the 8th Discworld novel, I don’t even know why, read a few more published later and then decided to start again, back at the beginning. Why read Pratchett, then? Because he was a wordsmith, as the definition goes “a skilled user of words.” Was he, then, a literary writer? Yes, he was that rare breed: the popular literary writer, the ones who used to abound in the 19th century until Modernism decided that either you told a story or you wrote Literature. Fortunately, Sir Terry could do both.

A typical experience of reading one of her novels consists for me of reading non-stop and then braking hard in the last 50 pages, realizing that the pleasure of a new Pratchett will not be repeated for one year at least (now never again…). I admire the way Pratchett comments obliquely on the absurdity and stupidity of our world by using an even crazier parallel in the Discworld; I love how the narrator’s voice is full of barbs and yet so kind, so humane; I enjoy the variety of eccentric characters and how one gets to know little by little the varied geography and societies of the Discworld; I value Sir Terry’s defence of integration despite difference and how his humans, trolls, dwarves, zombies, vampires… find a place in the accommodating city of Ank-Morpork. I marvel at the inventiveness. He has always made it smile, and has often made me laugh, sometimes really loud. No easy feat for a writer.

Queen Elizabeth II knighted Terry Pratchett for services to literature in 2009 (he had been appointed ‘Officer of the Order of the British Empire’ or OBE in 1998). He declared himself “flabbergasted,” and I declare myself won over by a state capable of honouring this way not only him but also Arthur C. Clarke or Arthur Conan Doyle, even Barbara Cartland. That Pratchett ended his days ‘Sir Terry’ is one of those very nice British quirks we wonder about from abroad… very civilized.

Sir Terry, knight of the Discworld, servant of Literature: I’ll miss you very, very much. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for 20 years of the most wonderful company. I’m really sorry you’re gone; your books will be here, by my side, for as long as I live. And I’ll do my best, this is a promise, to find you as many new readers as I can. Long live Sir Terry!

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2 thoughts on “GOODBYE AND THANKS, TERRY PRATCHETT

  1. Dear Sara,

    as soon as I heard of his demise, I thought of you. I just wanted to tell you that I’m sorry for your loss and that, for what it’s worth, Terry Pratchett is in my reading list since you mentioned him in class, and he wasn’t there yet because of a similar prejudice as the one you described. I’ll let you know what I think as soon as I read The Colour of Magic.

    Alicia

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