Terry Pratchett Book Club

Terry Pratchett Book Club: The Fifth Elephant, Part I

Sam Vimes thought he wasn’t happy being made a duke last book. Wait ’til he gets the load of the latest Patrician’s gambit (yet again with the enlistment of his wife)…

 

Summary

Colon is now in charge of the Watch’s traffic division; he unclamps the wheel of a delivery cart for All Jolson in exchange for a lovely meal. There’s a new system of communication now too, called “clacks” (basically semaphore with small paddles instead of flags). Vimes and Carrot help put out a fire at the Fool’s Guild and then race to help with riot that’s broken out, only to find that the riot has already ended. Dwarfs have been rioting frequently of late, for political reasons Carrot won’t explain, and no one’s talking. They hurry to a meeting with the Patrician, where Vimes learns that the issues with the dwarfs are all down to the crowning of the Low King in Uberwald. The Patrician wants Vimes to go as duke while his clerk sets up trade with the region, and Sybil has already agreed to the trip. He suggests that Detritus, Angua, and Littlebottom go with him as retinue. Vimes wants no part of it, but clearly has no choice in the matter. Angua and Nobby are working the Shades, Nobby as the lady of the night and Angua as his backup. Angua notices something at end of shift. Carrot brings Vimes to the Dwarf Bread Museum to see their replica of the Scone of Stone and explain what’s causing all the trouble—apparently the new Low King is a modern thinker and his selection was heavily swayed by the city with the second largest dwarf population… Ankh-Morpork. It’s caused unrest amongst dwarfs.

Lady Margolotta is in Uberwald trying to decide who Vetinari will send, and wondering exactly how much he knows. Stumbling onto a thought, she asks Igor to get everything their agent in Ankh-Morpork has on Vimes. Vimes is discussing their upcoming trip with Sybil when Carrot comes to the door and tells him that the Scone of Stone replica has been stolen. Vimes heads out with Carrot to investigate while Sybil looks at iconographs of their wedding and thinks about how different her husband is away from home. Vimes goes to the museum and finds too many clues for his liking. He reads up on Uberwald, talks to Cheery and Detritus, tries to understand why Vetinari has decided to send him instead of one of the city’s usual elite. Igor tells Lady Margolotta that she was correct and Vimes is the one coming on Ankh-Morpork’s behalf. The Uberwald werewolf clan—thebaroness, baron, and their son Wolfgang—are dismayed about Vimes being the selection for ambassador as he isn’t nearly important enough. They seem to be planning for him and Sybil to meet with some terrible accident that might involve being chased. Vimes meet Vetinari’s clerk, Inigo Skimmer, and insists he ride in the carriage to Uberwald.

Vimes checks in at the Watch House before they depart and learns about the murder of Wallace Sonky, the inventor of prophylactics. He also finds out that Angua didn’t come in for her shift last night and is apparently nowhere to be found. He tells Carrot that he’ll have to leave without her, and that he wants to be kept informed of what’s going on through the clacks system. Vetinari goes to talk to Leonard about the ciphers he’s broken from Uberwald and the ones he’s made for Vetinari to use in sending messages. He then tells him about a message from Uberwald that sent for information on Vimes… before Vetinari told the man he was going to be their ambassador. The Patrician tells Leonard that he spent time in Uberwald as a young man while on his Grand Sneer, and it was largely in the company of a woman who was much older than him. Vimes goes over his preparation packet on Uberwald, created by Skimmer, which contains information of the myth of the fifth elephant, which is supposedly responsible for the Schmaltzberg region that supplies the very best fat. Constables Shoe and Swires go to Sonky’s factory to investigate the murder, and Shoe notes that the smell of liquid rubber smells very similar to cat piss—a scent prominent at the dwarf bread museum after the theft.

Carrot gets a message from Angua and promptly resigns from the Watch. Vetinari knows that this is something to do with Angua and suspects that Carrot will be back once this is all straightened out, but has to put Colon in charge of the Watch in the meantime. Carrot calls on Gaspode to help him track Angua. Colon gets word of his promotion and is none too happy about it; they head down to the Sonky crime scene and afterward Nobby convinces Fred to promote him to sergeant. Gaspode picks up Angua’s scent and tells Carrot that she’s now with a male wolf and they’re headed toward the mountains. At the Watch House, Colon causes a stir by making rude comments about various minorities—the sort of stuff that Vimes says all the time, but they mind less because he’s earned their respect. Fred reacts by throwing a tantrum and demanding that he be given his tea in a china cup. Nobby sends someone out to buy one. Vimes is thinking about a clacks system rising up overnight as the scenery goes by. He climbs up to the top of the carriage where Cherry and Detritus are, and asks her to send a clacks at their next stop—he’s suspicious of something about Inigo Skimmer.

 

Commentary

We’ve arrived at a deeply enjoyable sort of pattern for the Watch books where there are some crimes happening, the world is changing, clues are mounting, and Vetinari wants Vimes to do something he’d rather not do—though how direct he’ll be in asking Vimes to do it is fully down to his mood and desire to observe the drama for himself. In this instance, he wants to be front and center to watch the guy lose his mind over being sent on ambassador duties after speaking to his wife about said trip without him.

The first theme that sticks out in this book is the beginnings of modernization on a more industrial scale in Ankh-Morpork, and between the need to make a trade agreement with Uberwald, and the traffic system, and the clacks. I find the intersection of timelines here fascinating—being that Pratchett is using satire of industrialization as a sort of echo of the abrupt changes at the end of the 20th century. Pointedly, the two characters who we get perspective from first on those subjects are Vimes and Vetinari, and neither of them would ever be so boring to hate progress for progress’ sake; in the Patrician it provokes musings on time, and in Vimes we get thoughts about economics, but they aren’t waxing dramatic about change. They have that blunt practicality in common.

We also are finally (finally) getting more of Sybil in this book, and everything around her bubbles down to perception; the way Vimes cannot understand why Sybil keeps track of every person she ever met, the way the baroness views Sybil as a silly woman for keeping in touch and being “soft”; the way Sybil herself knows that she doesn’t quite understand who Vimes is away from her or what he does all day. There’s so much underestimation of Sybil because most people do not fathom all that minute social work as actual labor that requires perception and intelligence and the ability to sort through so much detail.

The dwarfs in Discworld become this giant amalgam of otherness that takes pieces of Judaism, Scottish and Irish culture, and also Eastern European and Russian history that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of all the threads. My main thoughts on this read run toward the concept of a dwarfen diaspora, particularly in thinking about why they have gravitated to Ankh-Mopork so readily, and this piece in particular: “No one cares enough about you to want to kill you.”

There are all kinds of people everywhere, but I cannot deny that I always feel much safer in cities than I ever will anywhere else. That quote pretty much sums up why, and it sounds callous, but… it isn’t really. Part of the cultural pact of the city, as a living space, is that unspoken acknowledgement that everyone has to go along to get along, and there are so many people who have to make it simultaneously in order for it work. And largely, cities tend to manage that pact, despite the volume of people who make it up. Or perhaps because of it. Because when there are so many of us in the same place, we either chose to ignore everyone, or view everyone as part of our pack. Often both of those states in the same day, the same minute, the same breath.

Obviously the city can be every bit as dangerous to live in as anywhere else in the world. But that feeling that no one cares enough about you personally to want to hurt you is a very valuable one, particularly when you feel as though you stand out in any way. It’s the reason why Cheery was comfortable enough to come out. It’s the reason why dwarves can live the ways they wish to live when they come to Ankh-Morpork.

We’re also at the beginnings of a Ship of Theseus philosophical argument with the Scone of Stone, and you have to appreciate that Pratchett is essentially applying the argument using museum replicas. It’s been the topic of conversation for a good long while, but the fact that most museums can (and should) display replicas for plenty of reasons—up to and including gaining knowledge about how ancient items were made; allowing for more public interaction due to a lack of fragility; most of all, returning stolen artifacts to the cultures they belong to—is still a relevant conversation because it’s yet to be widely adopted as a practice. So we have the question of how much something is the thing when it’s been changed or perhaps duplicated, combined with a discussion of who should take ownership of a thing when many could lay claim to it.

But there’s more to that part of the story as we continue.

 

Asides and little thoughts:

  • Okay, but there are kosher butchers in Ankh-Morpork and I wanna know who they are kosher for? Who is keeping kosher on the Disc and how, this is important, tell me everything.
  • It says “Lord Vetinari carefully removed a mustache of frothy coffee from his upper lip,” which is excellent in the writing department because Pratchett deliberately doesn’t tell you how he does this, leaving it entirely to your own imagination.
  • Sorry, but Vetinari getting distracted thinking of Margolotta and how much older she was than him, and Leonard blankly replying “oh she’s gotta be dead by now!” is just amazing.
  • Constable Visit is doing a St. Francis of Assisi bit with the Watch pigeons, and Pratchett seems pretty fond of Francis, because Aziraphale does the same bit in Good Omens. I mean, preaching to animals is pretty cool, honestly. And also has the virtue of being harmless.

Pratchettisms:

There was usually a day’s traveling between each convoy. They turned the landscape into an unrolled time machine. On a clear day, you could see last Tuesday.

Angua hesitated, as she so often did when attempting to talk to Nobby on difficult matters, and waved her hands in front of her as if trying to shape the invisible dough of her thoughts.

You couldn’t sell things to people hidden by too many trees.

It was funny how people were people everywhere you went, even if the people concerned weren’t the people the people who made up the phrase “people are people everywhere” has traditionally thought of as people.

Vimes has a mental picture of Constable Swires, a gnome six inches tall but a mile high in pent-up aggression.

But kingship was a bit like a grand piano—you could put a cover over it, but you could still see what shape it was underneath.

 

Next week we’ll read up to:

The wheels clattered over the wood of a drawbridge.

citation

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