A long time ago, a mad mathematician, with a very questionable attraction towards his niece, wrote a poem called Jabberwocky and inserted it in his book Through the Looking Glass. It’s a poem that describes… Something. Something magical. Amorphous. Crooked and mysterious. It doesn’t make any sense. It was one of the first and most expressive exponent of Nonsense, this form of art that at times consists of knocking coconut shells together and pretending you’re riding a horse through English fields searching for holy grails, and that influences the spinning of the world since someone realized that 'humor' and 'sense' are concepts that can go through a very harsh divorce. It was there, expressed in another form of art, one much more spread out and much less interesting. Literature, in its most original and profound sense, is the work of tying letters one to another in a coherent way and make something out of it. Literature, in its most practical sense, is the construction of books, narrated stories, through words. Literature, in its most metrosexual sense, is what people call 'real books', as if there existed in the world something like 'false arte'.
Terry Pratchett said once that people accused him of making literature.
As I write these words, I have been waking up in a world without Sir Terry Pratchett for thirty-four days. He was a British fantasy author who wrote more than forty books, and he even beat J.K. Rowling as the 'most read author in the United Kingdom', right in the middle of the Potterian frisson.
Thirty-four days in which the world is rounder, in the bad way. Without that disc shaped planet that Pratchett created, balanced on the backs of four elephants, standing on the shell of a galactic sea turtle. Thirty-four days without that fantastical form of writing that makes him guilty of all literary charges.
Pratchett’s writing was truly very elaborate. Few times has the world seen someone that made words, its meanings, its lyricism and its transcendence dance in favor of the story being told with apparent effortlessness. He did it with grace, with hardness, with rhythm and with fervor. Even so, many people decided to ignore Pratchett because the bulk of his work belonged to 'smaller' 'genres': comedy and fantasy.
Pratchett used fantasy and comedy the same way a painter uses the color blue. Sometimes in the sky, as background. Sometimes in a bird, as the subject of the painting. Sometimes as one of these hip and modern painters whose paintings are entirely blue, and you don’t understand what exactly what is he doing, but the painter never meant for it to be 'understood'. His comedy and fantasy were not only the 'back setting', as in many other works. They took the central stage to become theme, transport, model, explosion. Pratchett managed to blend in satire and elaborate 'high fantasy' concepts with the purest nonsense comedy in a phenomenal way. His attention to detail was enviable. For example, in a disc shaped world, no one followed directions such as 'north, south, west, east', but rather 'center, border, anti-clockwise and clockwise'.
Comedy is, for all of us, a relief and a weapon. And Pratchett pointed that weapon at everyone. Classic literary archetypes, the insanity of religious extremism, the power systems that rule the world. And the son of a bitch had the audacity of doing so with a surprising level of humanity. His characters indeed are witches, barbarians, tourists, insurance salesmen and conman wizards, but they are all so human (except for the Librarian. He is an orangutan). Their weaknesses and their dreams are as epic as the ones inside all of us. His most beloved character, Death, is Discworld’s angel of death (only his job, not his personality), and many times all that he wants is just a farm and a family, and not all that ruckus of souls, work accidents and assassination. He spoke always in uppercase letters, and was the character that best understood the adventures of human being. Another of Pratchett’s recurring themes was popular culture. Mythology, cinema, music, politics, everything went to the Discworld and to his other works as jokes, but such accurate jokes that, once the hemorrhage had stopped, you’d reach a new level of understanding.
His main strength was the magic he performed with words, subverting expectations and meanings in each paragraph. Deconstructing prejudices and creating life. The actions and situations on his disc shaped world almost never followed the common sense of our globe shaped world, but different from the Jabberwocky, they reached somewhere. Not exactly a classic moral lesson, but a new unfolding of what you thought you knew a lot about.
There was another author, also departed far too early, that had much in common with Pratchett, but had much more prestige outside Britain. Douglas Adams even had a big budget feature film made based on his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which is referenced in 11 out of 10 conversations of these nerds of today, who completely forgot about the time when being a nerd was a crime. Pratchett did to fantasy what Adams did to science fiction. But Pratchett, who managed to insert just enough heart and actual philosophy, rather than idle sarcasm and one-liners, was a superior writer. (Yes, my friends, I have touched a bastion of literary paradigm. Next time I’ll trash talk Tolkien).
His most famous friend, Neil Gaiman, (whom he wrote Good Omens with) said that people should not be confused: Pratchett may appear to be a kindhearted old man, with his wordplay, his black fedora hat and his appearance of 'Sigmund Freud with more recreational and less heavy drugs', but in fact Terry Pratchett was furious. Furious with the world, with the institutions. Furious with his own mind, deteriorating quickly because of the advanced state of Alzheimer’s he was in. Furious with the government that didn’t allow him to euthanize.
Pratchett’s fury may have been righteous, but I disagree with it being his cause. Pratchett created awe, love, heroism and nobility from pariahs and evil spirits. His endings were not only 'happy', but they were the rest after a very crazy adventure (and they were never what you expected them to be). Pratchett may have had his fury as his locomotive, but used it to reach a place of beauty.
That was Terry Pratchett for me. The man that, in my opinion, filled with humbleness and 45% trustworthiness, was the best writer alive.
Until March 12, 2015, when his disease, defined by him as an 'embuggerance', took him to meet his greatest character, tall, boney, always smiling and always speaking in FULL CAPS. And together they went to search for another turtle, somewhere far from here.
The wizard Rincewind. Granny Wheaterwax. Captain Samuel Vimes. The Librarian. The useless Mort. Death. Cohen, the barbarian. Lord Vetinari. Moist Von Lipwig. The Luggage. Twoflower, the tourist. The Wee Free Men. Vampire. Small gods. Guards. Dragons. The great turtle A’Tuin.
We are all orphans now.
Go in peace, Sir Terry.
Thank you so much to wonderful Silas Chosen for writing this homage to Terry Pratchett. If you are curious and overwhelmed about reading the Discworld books, don't fret, it isn't a series that needs to be read in order (a tell-tale sign of what is to come). But, if you insist, here's a Discworld reading chart to help guide you.
image sources: 1, 2