Book review: “Mort” by Terry Pratchett

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Book review: “Mort” by Terry Pratchett

There is an awkward disconnect toward the end of Mort, Terry Pratchett’s 1987 Discworld novel, the fourth of 41 in the series. It has to do with Albert, Death’s manservant and cook.

OK, if you haven’t read any Discworld novels, that job description may sound odd.

As Pratchett’s regular Discworld readers know, Death is the guy in the long black robe with the ever-so-sharp scythe — oh, and he’s a skeleton— who appears in just about every one of these books. You know he’s there, even if he isn’t immediately identified, because of his distinctive way of speaking — in “a voice like lead slabs being dropped on granite,” all in small caps.

For instance, when he hires the 16-year-old Mort as his apprentice, Death asks his name:

“Mortimer…sir. They call me Mort.”

“WHAT A COINCIDENCE.”

(“Mort” being the root word in Latin for “death,” and, by way of Middle French and Middle English, the root of such English words as “moral.” But you knew that.)

 

Stood-still-time

Death’s job is to head out each day to be present at the death of, generally but not always, important people. The causes of such deaths can be any of the usual reasons, ranging from accident to poison to illness to long, sharp weapons, and Death isn’t actually bringing death about, just carrying out the sentence, as it were.

The first half of Mort has to do with Death training Mort to take over the family business. Oh, yeah, that’s another odd thing. Death has a daughter (by adoption), Ysabel, who, like Mort, is 16. With a wink and a nudge, Death lets Mort know that, if he plays his cards right, all this could be his.

All this being….well, this sort of no man’s land on some other plain of reality where Death lives when he’s not riding his huge battle horse (named Binky) on his rounds. It’s a weird place where everything is pretty much black and white, and it seems to be more the idea of a house and garden than the actual thing.

It’s also a place where time stands still.

That might seem attractive to you, but consider Ysabel, who is dealing like any teen with strange but important changes in bodily structure and emotional landscape, and who is trying to explain the downside of stood-still-time to Mort:

“I’ve been sixteen for thirty-five years.

“Oh.”

 “It was bad enough the first year.”

“Like a high-speed stilt walker”

And it’s the place where Albert holds down the fort, as it were, when Death is off harvesting souls.

(When Death shows up, he’s there to bring about death, but, to continue the metaphor, he doesn’t actually reap the souls and bind them in bales or thresh them or whatever it is farmers do to stuff they harvest. Once death occurs, then, as Death explains, the soul goes off to whatever afterlife its person has believed it was heading to — say, Valhalla or heaven or somewhere with a lot of dancing girls.)

Albert, when Mort meets him, seems like a stereotype of the sort of guy who would be someone’s butler:

Death’s manservant was one of those stick-thin, raw-nosed old men who always look as though they are wearing gloves with the fingers cut out — even when they’re not — and his walking involved a complicated sequence of movements.

Albert leaned forward and his left arm started to swing, slowly at first but soon evolving into a wild jerking movement that finally and suddenly, at about the time when a watcher would have expected the arm to fly off at the elbow, transferred itself down the length of his body to his legs and propelled him forward like a high-speed stilt walker…

Albert did indeed have exactly the right type of halfmoon spectacle to peer over the top of.

 

Seemingly as quaint

So, Albert, for much of the novel, seems to be this somewhat comical, persnickety character, a bundle of harmless idiosyncrasies.

And, then, because of various plot twists and turns, he turns back into what he had been a couple millenniums earlier, a powerful magician, and, back in the world, he uses a mighty spell to force Death to show up in a certain spot where Albert, by now in full megalomaniacal mode, is ready to channel Death’s not-insignificant powers to his own ends.

It doesn’t work out the way he expects.

And, by the end of the book, Albert is back in Death’s kitchen, seemingly as quaint and ludicrous and innocuous as ever — as if all that taking-over-the-world stuff had never happened.

Perhaps Pratchett explains this somewhere in the final pages of Mort, but I don’t think so. The book is only 181 pages, and I was looking.

For me, it’s a faux pas. If this book had been a movie, this Albert thing would have been listed under “Goofs” in the IMDb review.

 

Poignancy

My point in discussing this bit of clumsiness is not to beat up on Pratchett. After all, he was human — alas, past tense; Pratchett met Death face to face on March 12, 2015 — and he wasn’t Shakespeare — although, truth be told, a lot of the Bard’s plotting wasn’t exactly airtight, if you know what I mean.

The fact is that Pratchett’s plotting was usually pretty good, and that’s why this stumble stands out.

Even more, it’s a reminder that plots aren’t the key to his Discworld novels. What is important is how he draws his characters, like Albert in Death’s house, and how he tells about the misadventures of the people running around on his pages.

Those characters and their misadventures are always funny in some way. Yet, there’s often a touch or more of poignancy.

Pratchett may be writing about a golem or a dwarf or a vampire or an uncategorizable city guard or a garden-variety human being, but they all have human-like feelings.

 

“Turn all the lights off”

Even Death.

Near the end of this novel, Mort is carrying out Death’s job while Death is off trying to figure out what humans get from dancing and liquor and gambling and other such stuff. The priests in this particular place are closing up a pyramid, and Mort realizes that he had taken on so much of Death’s persona that he not only knew the time for doing the closing, but remembered it:

He remembered the knowledge. He remembered his mind feeling as cold as ice and limitless as the night sky. He remembered being summoned into reluctant existence at the moment the first creature lived, in the certain knowledge that he would outlive life until the last being in the universe passed to its reward, when it would then be his job, figuratively speaking, to put the chairs on the tables and turn all the lights off.

He remembered the loneliness.

 

Full of wonder

That’s pure Pratchett. He makes a joke about turning the lights off…while, at the same time, he’s empathizing with Death who, given huge power, has seen the first creature’s birth and will be around until the last creature’s death.

With no company.

Alone.

Leave it to Pratchett to understand the loneliness of Death, even with all his powers, and help the reader see and feel it.

Pratchett wasn’t perfect. None of us is. He was wonderful…and full of wonder.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

2.5.18

 

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