I remember, from when I was still living with my parents, my father laughing out loud while reading Discworld novels. This bothered my mother, who was reading something else, so she would scowl at him with a frown that said your reading rights end where mine begin. But he never could keep his composure. I read one or two books in the Discworld series myself, but our resident Pratchett expert is definitely Bella (you can find her review of another Discworld novel here). Because I considered becoming a journalist for a while, Bella recommended The Truth to me, the book in which William de Worde casually invents newspapers and investigative journalism. I still haven’t returned it to her, for which my excuse can now be that I was writing a review about it.
This story is the 25th in a series of books about ‘Discworld’, a fictional world inhabited by a host of colourful characters. The novels are set in different times and places and are about different characters, so they can easily be read independently, but they cross-reference quite a lot: main characters in one book might turn up as a supporting character in another, and occurences in one story are foreshadowed or talked about in the next. This particular story takes place in Ankh-Morpork, a metropolis where creatures from every corner end up, and starts with a spreading rumour that reaches the ears of William de Worde, the disgraced youngest son of a nobleman. He writes it down in his newsletter, which he sends to a few rich people who want to stay informed of the goings-on in the capital. From this humble beginning a series of events (the universe of Disc World is led by a peculiar sort of fate) provides William with a printing shop, employees and a novel idea: a real city newspaper.
With this improvised undertaking comes a realisation: you make news by putting something in a paper and calling it so. People will be equally interested in a picture of a carrot that is shaped like a private body part, as in political events that may have serious implications for their own lives, if not more. People will also believe what you write, just because it is in print. Because The Truth describes the development of a news industry from the point of view of people for whom access to daily printed news is not yet normalized, it puts a spotlight on the peculiarities of our own news circulation, most of which we have long taken for granted. For instance, The Truth reminds us that ‘fake news’ is not a new phenomenon: it’s the oldest thing since the invention of ‘news’.
A book about a budding journalist wouldn’t be half as interesting without some political intrigue. Luckily, a couple of thugs emerge from the shadows to carry out a sinister plot aimed at dethroning the ruler of Ankh-Morpork, Lord Vetinari. The police, led by detective Vimes, tries to find out more about crimes that took place in Vetinari’s palace. Meanwhile, William follows clues himself. Someone has to bring the truth to the public, he reasons, someone who has no personal interest that might make him change the story. He is astonished to learn that the public isn’t really interested in the truth: all they want is good stories, however preposterous they may be. But by the time he realises this, William is already addicted to his exciting new life as a journalist.
Pratchett is famous for his colourful characters. I have to mention two of them especially: Sacharissa Cripslock and Otto Chriek. Sacharissa is a young woman, who wants to be as respectable as possible. It turns out she has a natural talent for journalism and starts working for William. She keeps him grounded, telling him bluntly whenever he is wrong and making excellent suggestions regarding the running of their business. Because she is from a modest but very decent family, she is both practical and concerned with appearances. She can be both sweet and sarcastic, reporting on charity parties as easily as she wields a crossbow. I thought she was even cooler because she operated mostly in the background, discrete but effective, saving the day and claiming her victories.
I developed a crush on Otto Chriek, an ambitious photographer who is also a reformed vampire from the Discworld region Überwald, Pratchett’s play on the name ‘Transylvania’. He is, in his own words, “a vizard in zer darkroom! I am experimenting all the time. And I have all my own eqvipment and also a keen and positive attitude!” How can you not fall in love with that much earnestness? Otto is passionate about his job, except for the unfortunate detail that the flash of his camera sometimes reduces him to dust. Luckily, a few drops of blood can easily return him to his pale, thin body. His experiments in photography might cause some problems, but he makes a loyal and adorable friend when it comes down to it.
I must admit, it took me a while to be immersed in the story. For many readers the characters might be familiar, but I haven’t read much of Pratchett’s work, so I felt a bit lost in the sea of names. Additionally, I had to get used to the writing style. Terry Pratchett is very clever and has a dizzying grasp of the English language, no-one will deny that. But it seemed to me that he literally couldn’t resist making a joke when he thought of one, which got in the way of the story. It sometimes broke a good tension arc (is dat een term?) for a joke that wasn’t as good as it could have been if only he would have delayed the punchline a bit. It might just come down to personal taste though: the funnier you think the jokes are, the less they distract. I suspect this is the case, because in the later chapters I didn’t notice these things anymore, so apparently the jokes worked better for me when I was invested in the story. The fact is, even if his writing style annoys me sometimes, nobody writes like Pratchett does. His style is well-developed and truly unique.
The story itself has so many plotlines that there is again a risk of getting lost. I wouldn’t recommend reading this book in instalments with a lot of time in between. Personally, I’d prefer the book to be less full, of everything really. Although it all comes together cleverly, the storylines and characters and jokes feel a bit crammed and it would, I think, have done Pratchett’s wonderful inventions more justice if he’d have given them more space to develop. I can’t deny that the book did make me laugh out loud all the same. The first time was on page nineteen, when a printing press on a loose cart comes hurtling down a street while its owners scream, for the first time in Ankh-Morpork history, the immortal words “Stop the press!”. I’m sure my father, an actual journalist, could appreciate that, so now I know what to give him for his birthday. Sorry, mum.
Nellie Bly Award, in honour of a great and groundbreaking journalist
Terry Pratchett, The Truth (London, 2000)