Toy Soldiers – Jingo

jingo-2Never mind who started it, never mind how it was fought, they’d want to know how to deal with things now. They represented what people called the ‘international community’. And like all uses of the word ‘community’, you were never quite sure what or who it is.

For an author so set on exploring humanity, what makes us tick and why, it is somewhat curious it took Terry Pratchett more than 20 Discworld books to tackle war. Jingo was published in 1997; four years shy of 9/11 and all that followed, but close enough to the British Army’s involvement in both Northern Ireland and what was Yugoslavia that an experience of his nation at conflict would have been easy to recall.

Two years ago, Pratchett was interviewed by Cory Doctorow. It’s a splendid Q&A and well worth the time spent reading. In it, Pratchett talks about his thoughts about authority, an area where he is curiously conservative. Speaking about Vetinari, he says: “I don’t mind authority, but not authoritarian authority. After all, the bus driver is allowed to be the boss of the bus. But if he’s bad at driving, he’s not going to be a bus driver anymore.”

Perhaps conservative is unfair. Pratchett is, if anything, pragmatic and sensible, realising that there needs to be some order. Which is why Vimes rises through the ranks, despite his occasional speciesest views and questionable temperament, and Vetinari himself is practically superheroic in his abilities, even though you get the impression running Ankh-Morpork is some sort of game for his own amusement.

There’s always a lot of cleverness and complexity in the Discworld and that’s why Jingo sounds so appealing. It wouldn’t be like Pratchett to just take a typical ‘war is bad’ stance and build some jokes around it. Because, as the war that ripped Yugoslavia apart showed, there can sometimes be strong arguments for countries to enter conflict.

As you can probably tell, I am a bit of a war nerd, early mid-life crisis arguably to blame. Pratchett poking my brain to get me to think about this subject, why people do it and also why some people can be so good at it, or even enjoy it, should be a marvel.

Jingo pits Ankh-Morpork against Klatch over a disputed island that rises in the Circle Sea that separates them. An attempted assassination attempt on Klatch’s Prince Khufurah while in Ankh-Morpork leads to the Discworld equivalent of Defcon Four is being declared. As the Watch investigate the attempted murder, Vetinari steps down, embarking on his own secret mission to sort out the mess with the help of watchmen Nobby and Colon, and Leonard of Quirm, the Discworld’s greatest inventor.

The novel gives us war, murder, Vimes and Vetinari so the signs are promising. But Jingo is sadly not Small Gods with rifles replacing religion. It’s a bit of a mess but strangely one of Pratchett’s funniest. I was laughing out loud at numerous points – Vetinari, Nobby and Colon’s ‘secret’ mission in Klatch, or Carrot organising a football match between the factions at the end of the novel, echoing the famous Christmas Day Truce of the First World War, are two highlights, among many.

Last week, I criticised Hogfather for being too flabby, for putting the plot on hold all too often. If anything, Jingo has the opposite problem. It hurtles between too many plot strands that it is difficult to keep track of what is going on. Pratchett has used fast cutting to great effect in the past – the amazing finale of Men at Arms is one such example – but it doesn’t work here and the narrative is disorientating as a result.

The two princes of Klatch – one villainous, one not – are relegated to the background, so much so that when it is revealed that Prince Cadram engineered the attempt on his brother’s life to take over and unite the country’s disparate tribes you think ‘who? Did we read about that guy?’. We did, but so far towards the start of the book that he’s barely a villain, let alone at the level of Teatime in last week’s Hogfather or Small Gods’s Vorbis.

The reader learns at the end of the book that the mysterious Klatchian 71 Hour Ahmed, yet again hammering home how Pratchett is up there with David Foster Wallace or Martin Amis for genius character names, is the country’s equivalent of Vimes. But Vimes spends most of the novel watching him disappear over the horizon. It is perhaps the weakest form of criticism to say ‘what happened in the plot is not what I wanted to happen’ but Vimes vs Vimes is so attractive a concept it’s difficult not to be upset when it is wasted.

The war plot is somewhat pedestrian by Pratchett’s usually brave standards. Think back to Men at Arms and how every member of the Watch is speciesest in some way, even the sainted Carrot. In Jingo, war is bad, the people are manipulated in blaming the other and it is the common man who has to suffer at the whims of their leaders. All noble opinions but in Small Gods, Pratchett wrote an excellent novel both criticising religion and also showing how it can be important to a society. There’s not the usual abundance of intellectual curiosity that you would expect from an author like him.

Occasionally he does revert to type and the old anger and ambiguity that drives some of his best novels come back to the fore, as he questions easy assumptions. Take the following bumper quote about Vimes:

He wanted there to be conspirators. It was much better to imagine men in some smoky room somewhere, made mad and cynical by privilege and power, plotting over the brandy. You had to cling to this sort of image, because if you didn’t then you might have to face the fact that bad things happened because ordinary people, the kind who brushed the dog and told their children bedtime stories, were capable of then going out and doing horrible things to other ordinary people. It was so much easier to blame it on Them. It was bleakly depressing to think that They were Us. If it was Them, then nothing was anyone’s fault. If it was Us, what did that make Me? After all, I’m one of Us. I must be. I’ve certainly never thought of myself as one of Them. No one ever thinks of themselves as one of Them. We’re always one of Us. It’s Them that do bad things.

As we have seen in other books, particularly The Watch novels, Pratchett has a lot of time for man, singular. It’s when they become a mob that problems start. You meet people one at a time, they seem decent, they got brains that work, and then they get together and you hear the voice of people. And it snarls.

Similarly clever is how the scheming Klatchians played on Vimes’ desire To Do The Right Thing. His bullheaded belief that the criminal must be Morporkian is mocked by Ahmed when they finally meet at the end of the book. Be generous, Sir Samuel. Truly treat all men equally. Allow Klatchians the right to be scheming bastards.

It’s a shame that the novel lacks that bit of ambition other novels had in abundance. Instead of the grand sweep of WAR, we get a background narrative of two countries preparing their fleets and armies, while the Watch is on the hunt. You don’t mind this because of the abundance of comedy but the above two scenes are signs that the book could have been richer than it is.

It’s a hell of a lot of fun though. There is a wealth of comedic set pieces throughout the book, so much so you begin to wonder whether there was some floppy disc around 1996 with a bunch of excellent material he couldn’t use in other books and he decided to put them to good use here (as I have noted before I Am A Guy Wildly Speculating On The Internet and my opinions should be treated as such).

I could make a list of everything that made me laugh but you would be better off reading or rereading the book so I’ll keep it brief. Best of all was Vetinari, Nobby and Colon’s Three Stooges/Some Like It Hot schtick as they try to make their way through Klatch unnoticed. Nobby gets in touch with his feminine side by dressing as a belly dancer and the Patrician makes an unlikely figure of the greatest street entertainer the Discworld has ever seen. Unlike the rest of the book, Pratchett allows this scene to breathe and it is all the better and funnier for it. And Colon asking the Patrician how he can juggle, with Vetinari’s revelation that he never tried it before, gives an insight into how Ankh-Morpork’s leader likes to run things:

How strange. It’s hardly a skill, is it? One knows what the objects are and where they want to go. After that it’s just a case of letting them occupy the correct positions in time and space.

There is also a splendid thread involving Vimes’ dreaded pocket organiser, the thoroughly useless, demon-powered, proto-smartphone that has irked him for the past few books, even though it was a present from his beloved Sybil. When Angua gets captured, Vimes is caught between going to save her or staying to help Ankh-Morpork. He chooses the former but he grabs the organiser from the dimension where Vimes decided to stay.

Stick with me here.

So the Vimes who goes to save Angua and chase Ahmed is told by his organiser what would have happened if he had stayed in Ankh-Morpork. In short, everyone dies. Updates of how things fall apart are dropped into the story every so often and these sentences give a neatly chilling alternative as to how things could have turned out. Pratchett does dark really well and this throwaway fun concept has more impact than you would initially imagine.

The concept of ‘what could have been’ sums up the book nicely. Ultimately Jingo is a missed opportunity. War is such a big, terrifying, complex concept that it seems perfect for Pratchett to get his considerable intellectual chops into. We don’t get that here, although the fact he returns to war in Monstrous Regiment means we’ll have another look at conflict in the Discworld. That’s not to say Jingo isn’t entertaining – despite the subject matter, it’s one of his funniest books to date.

Next week, Rincewind is back again. After Interesting Times surprised me by being ‘aye, pretty good actually’, will The Last Continent be that rare thing? A Rincewind novel that can stand alongside Vimes and The Witches of Lancre? Find out next week.

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9 Comments

  1. Although very enjoyable in places, I do find Jingo to be the weakest of the Watch books. I agree that there are too many plot strands which means some inevitably get short-changed

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  2. Funny, it’s one of my favourites. I was totally obsessed with war at the time I first read it, still am by some people’s standards, and it’s the psychology and the what-ifs and the pointlessness (or not) of it all that fascinates me the most and I find Jingo perfect in that respect. I also find the fleeting nature of Vimes’ contact with Ahmed to be more powerful because it reflects the fact that Vimes is kind of mysterious and distant and unavailable from the perspective of other characters (the only reason he isn’t to us is because we’re inside his mind). So he’s seeing himself the way other people do for once, it’s quite bittersweet.

    I am aware, however, that my view may be coloured by the fact that to me, anything dealing with war can kind of feel like coming home, if it’s done with cynicism and with an at least underlying theme of killing innocent people being bad. If that’s the case I wouldn’t be at all surprised! It’s interesting that it can read so differently to someone who is also a war nerd, but I guess it makes sense since as you say, it’s such a huge subject; people are bound to take different things away from it.

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  3. A good point about Vetinari being a ‘dictator-as-superhero’. (Not Mussolini or the like – too blustery – but maybe there’s a hint of Salazar to him?)

    Anyway, on war: I think Pratchett’s best take on war is from outside Discworld. ‘Only You Can Save Mankind’ sets a sort of portal fantasy where the world of a SF ‘shoot-down-the-alien-ships’ game is ‘real’ for a young boy against the background of ongoing news reports from the Gulf War, and family and social dysfunction. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend it, and if you haven’t read it for a long time I’d recommend going back to it. I found it much more interesting than its more famous sequels (‘johnny and the dead’ and ‘johnny and the bomb’). It came out the same year as ‘Small Gods’ and ‘Lords and Ladies’, two of the best Discworld books, and while it’s not on their level I think it does have a little of their genius to it.

    But again, it’s a story in the shadow of war, rather than a real war story. I don’t think Pratchett was ever really interested in the brute mechanics of war – the marching and decapitating and whatnot – and was a lot more interested in where wars come from, and the effect they have on people.

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  4. Having read several obituaries of Lee Kuan Yew during the past 24 hours, I think there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the two dictators. I mean rulers, definitely rulers.

    I read ‘Only You’ YEARS ago but my preposterous book memory has let me down. I finished Making Money today so only have four Discworld books left. I may leave rereading it for a while…

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  5. I just found your blog thanks to a recommendation from a friend. A group of knitting friends of mine are doing a reread of Discworld together and it’s been very enjoyable. (I am a big fan of re-reading. I reread Jane Austen and Tolkien every year.) This time through I am reading the books by character group and I started reading all the Watch books in a row. I agree that Jingo is extremely funny and also choppy and all-over-the-place a bit.

    Vetinari is one of my favourite characters as well. I’m a little enamored of him (although I married more of a Vimes) and as you wrote in the Guardian, what does that say about me?? The scenes with Vetinari, Leonard, Colon, and Nobby are incredibly enjoyable and my favourite part of this particular book.

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  6. But…but…Jingo has possibly the best longterm set up of a pun/joke EVER! Loitering with intent!! (I sometimes think TP only set this story in Klatch in order to get that pun in…) Really enjoying your pieces on the books (which I came to only a few years ago but have quickly grown to love). It’s lovely to read your take and compare it to my own reading impressions (even if I don’t always agree). Thank you for your considered and interesting reviews!

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  7. Jingo birthed one of my top 10 Pratchett quotes of all time.

    “71-hour Ahmed was not superstitious. He was substitious, which put him in a minority among humans. He didn’t believe in the things everyone believed in but which nevertheless weren’t true. He believed instead in the things that were true in which no one else believed.”

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  8. Jingo has perhaps my favourite joke in any Pratchett novel.

    “Very well, then, by jingo!’ he snarled. ‘Alone!’
    ‘We could certainly do with one,’ said Lord Vetinari. ‘We need the money.”

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