|Random House Children's Books|
the guardian Fri 12 September 2008
It's 25 years since Terry Pratchett invented Discworld. If there's any justice, the Post Office will issue a set of silver jubilee stamps, the government will declare a national holiday, and giant turtles will parade through our municipal parks. Pratchett himself has celebrated in brilliantly perverse fashion by producing a non-Discworld book.
Nation takes place on a South Sea island in a skewed version of the 19th century. As a genre, the desert island adventure story has more than its fair share of masterpieces, including Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island and Lord of the Flies. Nation sits comfortably alongside them. It tells the story of Mau, a South Sea islander who is about to move from boyhood to manhood via a traditional rite of passage. This involves him being taken to a nearby haunted island and left there to find his own way home. When Mau gets home, however, home has vanished. A tidal wave has washed away his whole society and replaced it with a wrecked survey ship and a well-brought-up young British girl, Daphne.
At first these two are wary of each other - Mau is not even sure that Daphne is real - and Pratchett has a lot of fun with their inability to understand each other, and their attempts to hold on to their own cultures. There's a particularly funny and poignant scene in which Daphne invites Mau to tea. Her invitation helpfully includes a map with arrows on it. Mau takes this to mean she wants him to fire arrows at her. She tries to cook scones for him, but the flour is contaminated by dead lobsters. As the potential for misunderstanding and danger mounts, there's an electrifying moment when he suddenly grasps that she means well.
As the days go by, the island fills up with refugees, and both children find themselves having to do things their culture would never allow. The polite, repressed Daphne learns all about breastfeeding and has to chew meat for an old lady with no teeth. When the growing community comes under threat from raiders, Mau finds to his surprise and horror that he has to lead a people after all. There's a twist that gave me goosepimples of delight: if you read it to your 10-year-olds, they will gasp and giggle.
At the same time, you could read it to a conference of philosophy professors and they would learn something. Nation has profound, subtle and original things to say about the interplay between tradition and knowledge, faith and questioning. During his initiation ritual, for instance, Mau discovers that the island isn't haunted at all, and that his dad and uncle have already been there and left supplies and a canoe for him. On one level this means the ancient ritual is a piece of empty theatre. In another sense, though, it's a rite of passage that is supposed to teach him self-reliance and courage. In fact, it gives Mau a much more profound knowledge - of how much his dad loves him and how valued he is by his society. Without the theatre of the ghosts, he wouldn't experience the reality of the love.
Pratchett has visited this theme before, in the Bromeliad trilogy, where a group of nomes have developed an obviously stupid religion based on a magic stone, "the Thing", and a belief in "the Heavens". It's ridiculous, but it turns out to be sort of true. Something similar happens in Nation, but I can't go into details without spoiling it.
Pratchett is, like Mark Twain, or Jonathan Swift, not just a great writer but also an original thinker. Look at his heroes, for instance. Mau drifts into power partly out of weakness. He accepts responsibility because it's easier than arguing about things. The more responsibility he takes on, the more people depend on him until, in the end, he becomes their leader by default. And then, of course, he has to act as a leader is supposed to act. It's more interesting, more true and more forgiving than anything you'll see on the news or in a political memoir. Am I making it sound heavy-going? It really isn't. It's funny, exciting, lighthearted and, like all the best comedy, very serious. In some part of the multiverse there is probably a civilisation based on the thinking of Terry Pratchett - and what a civilised civilisation that will be.
· Frank Cottrell Boyce's most recent novel is Cosmic (Macmillan).