When you think of it, sending a letter in the mail is a small act of hope. It’s the same sending a text or an email.
You compose your message and then commit it to a process that, you believe and hope, will end with it being read by the person to whom you are sending it.
As beleaguered as the U.S. Postal Service is nowadays, your letter is likely to get where it’s going — unless it gets lost on an errant truck or in a snowbank or stuck in a catalogue for another address. A text or an email seems more certain to reach its recipient — unless a glitch happens or it ends in a junk folder or it gets deleted before it’s seen.
Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, the 33rd book in his Discworld series, is about hope. And it’s also about angels, which is to say, messengers.
Good and bad angels, if you include the banshee assassin Mr. Gryle as an example of the latter and the central character of the 2004 novel, Moist Van Lipwig, as an example of the former.
“Extremely good at it”
Not that Moist — a con man by trade, and a very successful one — thinks of himself as angelic in terms of being kind-hearted or civic-minded or, well, honest in any sense of the word.
It’s just that Lord Vetinari, the Patrician of Anhk-Morpork, makes him an offer and gives him a choice.
Moist is being hanged for a wide variety of financial scams — indeed, it appears to the execution-watchers of the general public that the con man is dead — when the Patrician’s people hurry his body away so that, still alive (barely), Moist can meet quietly with Vetinari in his office.
Where he is offered the job of Postmaster of the long-moribund Anhk-Morpork Post Office. And is informed that he is more than free to turn it down. As long as he’s willing to resume his dying.
“Look,” said Moist, “I don’t know what’s happening here, but I don’t know anything about delivering post!”
“Mr. Lipwig, this morning you had no experience at all of being dead, and yet but for my intervention you would nevertheless have turned out to be extremely good at it,” said Lord Vetinari sharply. “It just goes to show; you never know until you try.”
“Third Ning Of The Shaving Of The Goat”
As it turns out, Moist discovers a flair for getting the mail delivered by adapting his con-man skills to government work and gathers around himself an odd crew of odd individuals including:
- Mr. Pump, the golem (i.e., a clay robot that isn’t technically alive but is) who is his parole officer;
- the elderly Junior Postman Tolliver Groat and his young assistant, Stanley Howler, an obsessive for pins (i.e., a pinhead); and
- Adora Belle Dearheart, a chain-smoking, golem-rights activist who is known by the nicknames “Killer” and “Spike” and who, by the end of Going Postal, has become Moist’s girlfriend.
A variety of other golems are recruited by Mr. Pump and Miss Dearheart including Anghammarad who doesn’t look like the other golems:
His voice was not like Mr. Pump’s, and neither was his clay. He looked like a crude jigsaw puzzle of different clays, from almost black through red to light gray. Anghammarad’s eyes, unlike the furnace glow of those of the other golems, burned a deep ruby red. He looked old. More than that, he felt old. The chill of time radiated off him….
“I Am Almost Nineteen Thousand Years Old, Having Been Born In The Fire By The Priests Of Upsa In The Third Ning Of The Shaving Of The Goat. They Gave Me A Voice That I Might Carry Messages.”
He is given the title of Extremely Senior Postman.
In terms of plot, Going Postal pits Moist against a master con man named Reacher Gilt who lives in Tump Tower (sic) and has control of the company that runs the clacks (i.e., a semaphore telegraph system) — and is running it into the ground for profit and more profit.
Moist’s revitalized Post Office, however, is giving the clacks company a run for its money. People are having fun mailing letters…and, given the frequent clacks breakdowns, the postal system can turn out to be faster.
Gilt — note the subtle surname that Pratchett bestows on him — isn’t the sort of person with loose morals. He has no morals, and he’s the one who sends the banshee to assassinate Moist to end the postal threat.
Instead, the wrong guy is attacked, and a huge fire engulfs the Post Office building.
“A message to King Het of Thut”
The result is one of the most poignant scenes in Pratchett’s long Discworld series.
Anghammarad, the 19,000-year-old golem, was fashioned to be a messenger, and, even though the kings and gods and empires for which he worked for so long have long faded into the past, he still carried on one arm, just above the elbow, “a metal box on a corroded band that had stained the clay.”
Miss Dearheart explains to Moist what’s inside:
“A message he’s got to deliver…It’s a message to King Het of Thut from his astrologers on their holy mountain, telling him that the Goddess of the Sea was angry and what ceremonies he’d have to do to placate her….
“Anghammarad got there too late and was swept away by the ferocious tidal wave, and the island sank.”
That was 9,000 years ago, but Anghammarad, while doing whatever other jobs he’s given, continues to wait for the day when he will be able to deliver his message, even if it’s in some alternative universe. He was created to be a messenger, and he has a message to deliver.
“His message glowing yellow”
A golem, as a piece of clay, is impervious to cold and impervious to heat. So, when the Post Office fire breaks out, Anghammarad and the others go in and stop the fire by carrying it outside. They become red hot, but they don’t feel that.
Then, at the height of their work, the rainwater tank on the roof of the building collapses and floods the interior.
The crashing noise high above. The metallic boom. The golem Anghammarad looking up, with his message glowing yellow on his cherry-red arm. Ten thousand tons of rainwater pouring down in deceptive slow motion. The cold hitting the glowing golem…
All that is left is clay dust. “Fire and water,” Miss Dearheart says. “But not both.”
Anghammarad no longer exists and will never deliver his message.
“Hope turned inside out”
The hope that is implicit in sending a letter has much more basis than the hope that thinks this time I’ll will the lottery with my ticket or this time I’ll make a lot of money from this gullible guy who almost assuredly won’t turn out to be a scam artist.
Moist played on that hope — often a form of greed — as a con man, and he employs a version of that in getting the Post Office back on its feet and in battling with the clacks company and Reacher Gilt behind it.
And, when he plays a trick across the breadth of Discworld in an effort to reveal Reacher Gilt for what and who he is, he recognizes a sort of anti-hope that results. The two are in a crowded room, and Moist looks across and locks eyes with Gilt.
One look was enough. The man wasn’t certain. Not totally certain.
Welcome to fear, said Moist to himself. It’s hope, turned inside out. You knew it can’t go wrong, you’re sure it can’t go wrong…
But it might.
I’ve got you.
Going Postal is all about angels and messengers and hope. And the opposite of hope.
Patrick T. Reardon