Tuesday, 13 October 2009

More on Unseen Academicals

Thinking more about Unseen Academicals, having now read it twice in two days, such is the liberating effect of not being well enough to do anything else. One of the new characters is Mr Nutt. At first he appears to be a Goblin but later it emerges that he is an ORC, a sort of breed that has been manufactured as a kind of slave mercenary warrior. OK so anyone who can’t stand fantasy books now wants to stop reading, but if you can bear it, keep on to the end.

Gradually through the book we find that Mr Nutt is very clever and immensely strong, virtually a superhero in disguise. Normally this would be quite boring, lets face it this type of fiction is awash with supermen, but Pratchett is a much better writer than that.

Scenes emerge, usually driven by the actions of other characters, that reveal the talents of Mr Nutt, but running though the book is another story. Mr Nutt lacks self-confidence, and is desperate to discover himself and prove his worth. Instead of a fairly trivial story about the emergence of a new hero, we get a much more moving tale where we are drawn into being concerned about, even sorry for this poor individual, who believes he may be the last of his kind in the world. Other characters are drawn into caring for him, despite the fact that they know that his species, if that’s the right word for made up creatures, has a reputation for tearing people’s heads off.

The story of Mr. Nutt and Glenda, the brilliant cook who runs the night kitchen, is really a simple romance of self-discovery, but set against the improbable background of the reinvention of football it becomes a comedy. Scratch a little deeper and there’s almost no limit to what you find.

Football started out as a street game, but by now it has become a proxy for gang warfare, cue lots of minor characters, sketched in just enough detail to bring to life every unsavoury miscreant you’ve ever heard of.

The magicians, most of them familiar from previous books, could be any university group, they provide an opportunity for plenty of jokes about elitism, but a proxy too for any section of society that tries to run on its own rules, above or outside the law.

The law in this case is the Patrician, the appointed tyrant who is nevertheless a benevolent dictator. Lord Vetinari is subtle and so clever that he knows that despite his apparently absolute power he has only as much power as the population gives him. Power is in the mind of those who accept it in others. The same message comes from Glenda the cook; those who keep us in our place only keep us there because we know our place.

Like so many of Terry Pratchett’s books, it is a comedy on the surface, and often very funny, but underneath it could be ‘East of Eden’ or ‘For whom the Bell Tolls’. It seems obvious to me that he could have written classic novels anytime he felt like it, but somehow he went beyond that and created an imaginary world where all the deep complexities of the human spirit can blossom, safely wrapped up in exaggerated comedy so that the reader never realises that they’ve been exposed to literature.

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