Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

"You Turn Worlds Upside Down": The Politics of Reversal in Terry Pratchett's Nation

Academic journal article DQR Studies in Literature

"You Turn Worlds Upside Down": The Politics of Reversal in Terry Pratchett's Nation

Article excerpt

This essay explores the possibilities offered by the interpretation of Terry Pratchett's alternative history novel Nation1 in terms of its pattern of structural, symbolic and ideological reversals centred on the motifs of island and shipwreck understood both literally and allegorically.

Nation differs from the majority of Pratchett's novels in several ways. Firstly, unlike practically everything else published in the last fifteen years, it does not in any way refer to his sprawling Discworld series. Secondly, it is significantly less comic (but not less ironic) and more directly involved in various ideological concerns of the real world than anything he has ever written. Thirdly, unlike most, especially later works, Nation is very consciously and artistically structured. It is also the only2 novel by Pratchett set in an alternative version of our own world.3

From the very beginning, the narrative alternates between several focalizers stressing the polyphony of perception to settle down later into a duet of two main character-focalizers (Mau and Ermintrude/ Daphne), concluding with a modern coda offering an evaluation of the earlier events narrated from the point of view of Mau's descendants.

The novel focuses on two main characters whose development will be shaped by the reversals of fortune they share with their two home islands, Great Britain and Nation, otherwise called "The Island Where the Sun Is Born", in the Mothering Sunday Islands. The importance of these two locations, placed practically on opposite parts of the globe, as will transpire in the course of the novel, depends on the perspective partially imposed by the cartographic representation. Moreover, the novel's plot is dominated by three shipwrecks, two metaphorical ones and a literal one, which in a variety of ways contribute to the two islands' more and more intertwined fates.

Ermintrude Fenshaw departs from Great Britain to join her father, a newly appointed governor of Port Mercia, the capital of Rogation Sunday Islands. As a result of an exceptionally powerful tsunami and a most spectacular shipwreck, she becomes a castaway on one of the Mothering Sunday Islands. There she encounters Mau, the only survivor of the local population which was wiped out by the same giant wave. Due to an unexpected turn of events she later succeeds her father on the British throne to be returned to the tiny island only after her death. This short summary focuses on the important events from the point of view of Ermintrude's imperial homeland she initially unquestioningly shares. Her stay on the island she learns to call Nation, and especially her contact with the uniquely powerful personality of Mau, results in a complete re-formulation of her world view. When a rescue expedition led by her father reaches Nation, he too benefits from the experience in a similar way.

Ermintrude's metamorphosis is heralded by her decision to cast away her hateful name, "her wrong name ... exactly the kind of name that would ... mess it all up" (69-70), and choose another, Daphne. This re-naming cannot be final, as in all probability she would rule as Ermintrude I. The Daphne/Ermintrude dichotomy reflects the reversible focus imposed by the emergence of another focal point on the globe enforced by the sudden shift of historical and scientific perspective brought about by the discovery that the island of Nation was once a highly advanced civilization, and the island's subsequent joining of the Royal Society. The seemingly obscure little island becomes not only a testing ground for three future leaders - Mau, Ermintrude and her father - and the coronation and burial site of a king and a queen of Great Britain, but also a world centre of scientific research and cultural exchange.

The story seen from Mau's perspective concentrates on his personal tragedy and resulting transformation enabling him finally to save his island from cultural and political absorption into the British Empire. …

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