If there is one gripe I could make about Terry Pratchett, it is that his plots and/or narratives are occasionally a little too complicated: you spend too much effort getting your head around them, at the expense of the really important stuff like character and meaning. I’ve never been one who lives for plot (whether in books or films); you can produce great stuff with character, meaning and minimal plot, but plot with nothing else is a little bit pointless. You can’t learn (or grow) from the latter.

Anyhow, The Fifth Elephant was one of those where, for the first few readings, trying to keep track of the story somewhat obscured the joys of everything else. It was after all about politics, which are complex enough when they involve only men, but which in this case also involve dwarfs, werewolves, vampires. And two countries (Ankh-Morpork and Uberwald), which means international politics. And a protagonist who thinks primarily like a copper, and now has to learn very quickly to act like a diplomat: the reluctant aristocrat, His Grace His Excellency the Duke of Ankh, Commander Sir Samuel Vimes, to use all his titles. (Although His Grace supposedly cancels out Sir.)

This time, however, I think I got enough of a handle on the story that the other things stood out more. Fantasy with characters, humour and a lot of heart, that’s Terry Pratchett. I have never read him because of the fantasy, though I appreciate that a world with multiple sentient species (including what we in this world would consider the supernatural), and magic, &c, just offers so many more creative possibilities to a writer. Pratchett stretches credulity enough, anyhow, with the absolutely wonderful creation that is Samuel Vimes.

The Fifth Elephant isn’t the novel that showcases most strongly this impossibly deep and rounded character – I think Night Watch would be a strong contender for that – but it does boast this gem of a description of Vimes, from the point of view of his wife Lady Sybil Ramkin, who is incidentally the richest woman in Ankh-Morpork.

In many ways, she told herself, she was very lucky. She was proud of Sam. He worked hard for a lot of people. He cared about people who weren’t important. He always had far more to cope with than was good for him. He was the most civilized man she’d ever met. Not a gentleman, thank goodness, but a gentle man.

Oof. I want a husband like that too. Of course, Sybil sees Vimes in a slightly idealised way, but at the bottom of it all Vimes is a Good Egg. Sybil is no slouch either; these two really deserve each other. Vimes knows this about her:

She got on with people. Practically from the moment she’d been able to talk she’d been taught how to listen. And when Sybil listened to people she made them feel good about themselves. It was probably something to do with being a… a big girl. She tried to make herself seem small, and by default that made those around her feel bigger.

Character aside, there’s some really super humour in The Fifth Elephant. The disadvantage to reading Terry Pratchett on the MRT is that you can’t help the odd grin and outright chuckle and the numerous jokes. Well, there’s nothing wrong with laughing to yourself in public per se, but you don’t generally want to come off as a lunatic. Terry Pratchett’s humour is extremely… varied. He does puns and wit and irony, and bizarre situational humour, and character-driven humour; he isn’t above slapstick, either. And there are the really true observations cut with humour:

It is in the nature of the universe that the person who always keeps you waiting ten minutes will, on the day you are ten minutes tardy, have been ready ten minutes early and will make a point of not mentioning this.

When people “We must move with the times,” they really mean “You must do it my way.”

Okay, so Terry Pratchett can tell it as he sees it, i.e. that the world is strange and wonderful. He doesn’t shy away from the dark aspects of it, either. The Fifth Elephant has werewolves and wolves and dwarves and men all doing terrible things to one another, cross-species and within their species, too. It makes you feel better to remember that werewolves and dwarves don’t exist (I don’t think they do, anyway), but only a little. But I wouldn’t much like a writer who is blind to the great stuff. For there is great stuff, too, alongside the horrible stuff. It might be silly to characterise Pratchett as having ‘heart’ just because he isn’t a complete cynic, but it’s not fair to suggest that he’s an idealist, either, since ‘idealist’ is something of pejorative term nowadays. And Pratchett is well aware that the great stuff in this world seldom consists in the so-called ‘big stuff’. Observes Vimes:

… the world wasn’t moved by heroes or villains or even by policemen. […] All he knew was that you couldn’t hope to try for the big stuff, like world peace and happiness, but you might just about be able to achieve some tiny deed that’d make the world, in a small way, a better place.

I think we can take this to be fair representation of Pratchett’s own views on the matter. It certainly is a fair representation of mine.

So, really, complicated as the story of The Fifth Elephant is, the story isn’t the point. It never really is, with Terry Pratchett. And to me that is a very big plus point indeed. Makes for good re-reading.

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