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Michael Dirda on 'Nation'
Two young people on a deserted isle must remake their world.

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, September 28, 2008

NATION

By Terry Pratchett

HarperCollins. 367 pp. $16.99

At one point in this excellent new novel, a boy named Mau desperately needs to find milk for a starving infant. Unfortunately, he's on a virtually deserted island, and there just aren't any cows or nursing mothers around.

There is only one possible source of nourishment for the baby, and Mau risks his life to procure it. Even now the thought of what the boy does still makes me shudder. In a lifetime packed with both extensive reading and vivid nightmares, I can honestly say that I have never come across anything quite so . . . well, there is no adequate word to describe an act that is as heroic as it is disgusting. For this scene alone, no reader is ever likely to forget Terry Pratchett's Nation. Not that I would short-change the memorability of its ghosts, cannibals, bloodthirsty mutineers, forbidden burial grounds and secret treasure. Exciting in themselves, these also play their part in Pratchett's latest examination of some fundamental questions about religious belief, the nature of culture and what it means to be human.

But let's start at the beginning.

When Russian influenza strikes Britain in the mid-19th century, not even the royal family is spared. The king and his 138 immediate possible successors quickly succumb, and the throne descends, improbably, to His Excellency, the Governor of Port Mercia, a trading post far away in the Great Southern Pelagic Ocean. During the consequent state of emergency, that swift sailing ship, the Cutty Wren, immediately sets forth to alert the governor of his new position -- and on board are several mysterious passengers, including five shrouded figures referred to as the "Gentlemen of Last Resort" and two women, one the unlikely sovereign's elderly but formidable mother. She is aptly described as "a mixture of the warrior queen Boadicea without the chariot, Catherine de' Medici without the poisoned rings, and Attila the Hun without his wonderful sense of fun."

As should already be clear, Nation is -- as Terry Pratchett tells us in his author's note -- "set in a parallel universe, a phenomenon known only to advanced physicists and anyone who has ever watched any episode of any SF series, anywhere." It is also what's called a crossover novel, which means that while Nation may be aimed primarily at bright-eyed young adults-- as were Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy and the Harry Potter books of J.K. Rowling -- many grizzled old adults are likely to enjoy it, too. You don't even need to know anything about Pratchett's earlier work: It's a stand-alone book, with no connection whatsoever to Discworld.

Even though Pratchett's name is virtually synonymous with this justly celebrated fantasy series (more than 35 Discworld titles at last count), he does write outside its frame from time to time. So don't look in Nation for the witch Granny Weatherwax or Captain Vimes of the City Watch or the elderly Cohen the Barbarian or even the Wee Free Men. Oh, a couple of characters sometimes slightly recall Discworld figures: For instance, the sinister Mr. Black's diction resembles that of the suave and dangerous Lord Vetinari, and Death -- a prominent and surprisingly talkative character of the series -- appears here too, though he now goes by the name Locaha. But that's it. Nation remains at heart a novel of ideas, a ferocious questioning of vested cultural attitudes and beliefs. In form it is a classic "Robinsonade," that is, a book in which characters are marooned on a desert island and there create a little civilization of their own.

For, as it happens, just about the time that the Cutty Wren leaves England for Port Mercia, the Southern Pelagic Ocean suffers widespread devastation from a monster tsunami. Even that sturdy ship, the Sweet Judy, finds herself caught up by the gigantic mountain of water and is sent crashing onto a small island. The sole survivor of the wreck turns out to be a young girl of 13 who is also, as it happens, the only child of the unlikely new king of England. Poor Ermintrude finds herself seemingly alone on an island inhabited largely by wild pigs and repulsive "grandfather birds." These "ugly-looking things didn't just eat everything, they ate all of everything, and carefully threw up anything that didn't fit, taste right, or had woken up and started to protest."

Yet Ermintrude -- or Daphne, as she takes to calling herself since she's always hated her real name -- isn't, in fact, alone. Of all the many islanders, just one boy has been spared by the gods: Mau. But spared for what reason, if any? Mau has lost everyone he ever loved, everything he knew, all that he had looked forward to being part of, his entire world. He alone survives of the Nation. Half crazed by grief, he soon starts to hear the ancient voices of the Grandfathers ringing in his ears, constantly whining for the age-old rituals and their special beer and the restoration of the "god anchors" that have been swept away by the great wave. Little wonder that Mau first imagines that the pale Ermintrude, or rather Daphne, must be a ghost.

Eventually, of course, these two young people -- a girl who one day might become the Queen of England and the boy who is, by default, the chief of the Nation -- join forces and together begin the long effort of survival. It is a thrilling story.

And, as I said earlier, a deeply philosophical one, especially for a young adult novel. Mau's doubts are those that haunt anyone who has lived with undeserved misfortune. Why did the gods destroy the Nation, including innocent children and babies? Do such deities deserve worship? Are they in fact real, or do things simply happen or not happen? What are the claims of tradition against the needs of the present and future? And, most simply, what is a man, and what are his obligations to himself and to others?

While Mau's education revolves around such spiritual and intellectual conundrums, Daphne's is more practical: This hitherto sheltered daughter of privilege learns that she is a woman of power, at once strong, resolute and utterly indomitable. By the end of the novel, the girl who had been taught that "a lady should never lift anything heavier than a parasol and should certainly never set foot in a kitchen" will chew the food for a toothless old crone, midwife the birth of a baby, saw off a man's leg, poison a murderer and even descend alone into the realm of the dead.

Old crone? Baby? Where, you might wonder, did they come from? Over time, various other survivors of the tsunami gradually make their way to Mau's island, bringing with them their troubles, talents and difficult personalities. The Sweet Judy is gradually stripped of its useful materials: After all, "since there was going to be a future, it would need a roof over its head." Yet always the tireless, hard-working Mau is assailed by the voices of the Grandfathers, mocking his efforts, calling upon him to bring back the old traditions. But Mau has learned to think for himself and ceaselessly wonders about the nature of his world: Who made the white stones called "god anchors"? And what secret lies hidden deep within the cave of the Grandfathers? The ultimate answer to both these questions would be right at home in an Indiana Jones movie.

Still, even the most esoteric mysteries diminish in importance before the growing threat of the Raiders, roving cannibals who worship the death-god Locaha. Mau points out that there's nothing much left on the island, so "What have we still got that they would want?" And the old priest Ataba answers: "Skulls. Flesh. Their pleasure in our death. The usual things."

Yes, the usual things, indeed. But there's worse yet: It turns out that an evil mutineer named Cox may have become their new leader, and Daphne knows him all too well. "Like crocodiles and sharks, Cox always had a grin for people, especially when he had them at his mercy, or at least where his mercy would be if he had any."

While Nation occasionally moves a little slowly, it soon develops great momentum, and we come to care and worry about Mau, Daphne and the others. Moreover, this being a Pratchett novel, the writing is always a pleasure, albeit somewhat muted compared to Discworld's higher-pitched zinginess -- though not always or wholly so: "It was, according to the history books, the fastest coronation since Bubric the Saxon crowned himself with a very pointy crown on a hill during a thunderstorm, and reigned for one and a half seconds."

And then, of course, there's the cook on the Sweet Judy, who transforms his coffin into a well-provisioned life raft. He tells Daphne, "I got the idea off a harpooner I met when I was working on the whalers." Harpooner, coffin? Could it be? Cookie goes on: "He was a rum 'un and no mistake. Had more tattoos than the Edinburgh Festival and all his teeth filed as sharp as daggers, but he lugged this coffin onto every ship he sailed with so's if he died, he'd have a proper Christian funeral and not be chucked over the side sown up in a bit o' canvas with a cannonball for company. I thought about it myself -- it's a good basic idea, but it needs a little bit of changing. Anyway, I didn't stay long on that ship on account of coming down with bowel weevils just before we rounded the cape, and I had to put ashore at Valparaiso. It was probably a blessing in disguise, 'cause I reckon that ship was heading for a bad end. I've seen a few mad captains in my time, but that one was as crazy as a spoon. And you may depend upon it, when the captain is crazy, so is the ship. I often wonder what happened to 'em all."

Yes, Cookie, you were right: That ship and her captain were definitely heading for a bad end. But Nation isn't. It's a terrific, thought-provoking book, and it ends wonderfully. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.

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