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Title: Maskerade

Author: Terry Pratchett

Published: 1995. Corgi edition published in 1996.

Number of pages: 381

Review by: Aditi Mukund Prabhudesai

“My thanks to the people who showed me that opera was stranger than I could imagine. I can best repay their kindness by not mentioning their names here.”

Straight off the bat, Terry Pratchett doffs his black fedora to the weird world of opera with the above dedication. Opera is an artistic medium comprehensible to few. It is instructive that at different stages in the book, both the protagonist and the antagonist launch into similar tirades about the absurdness of opera (‘The plots don’t make sense…There should be a sign on the door saying “Leave your common sense here”!’). Even the book cover illustrated by the great artist Josh Kirby is an extension of this belief. The leading characters are depicted at a bizarre angle which disorients the reader. Josh infuses them with such raw, unbridled energy that one feels they could leap out of the cover any second.

Maskerade by Terry PratchettMaskerade (published in 1995), set in the fictional Discworld, is Terry Pratchett’s signature take on the Gothic novel “The Phantom of the Opera”. Ankh Morpork’s Opera House has been plagued by a rash of accidents. A Ghost, fan of the opera, wanders around the premises. However, like the cover, opera here twists nearly every character into its beguiling web: all anyone seems to care about is that “the show must go on” (“You never stop the show, not even if someone dies!”). Amidst this, Agnes “Perdita X Dream”Nitt arrives from Lancre to try her hand at opera. With a massive build to match her mouthful of a name, Agnes impresses all with her powerful voice. Despite that, she is relegated to the chorus. A pair of murders and Lancre witches, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, drop down on the Opera House like a ton of bricks. Partly driven by the desire to recruit Agnes into their ranks (“You needed at least three witches for a coven. Two witches was just an argument”), Nanny and Granny sense that evil lurks at the Opera House. They set about poking their noses to get to the bottom of the murders and the mystery of the Ghost of the Opera.

The theme of masks runs deep throughout the novel. Almost every leading character appears to be operating behind one. One of the opera crew turns out to be a plainclothes policeman. Nanny’s cat, Greebo is a shape shifter: a sort of reverse were-cat. Christine, a pretty and seemingly airhead lead singer, takes cover behind the shield of a damsel in distress whenever a crisis occurs. An exotic tenor, Enrico Basilica, turns out to be Ankh Morpork’s very own Henry Slugg. Granny and Nanny don disguises in their pursuit of the Ghost. Nanny is akin to an old, female Shahrukh Khan; she manages to worm her way in everywhere due to her impish charm (“Nanny could get a statue to cry on her shoulder and say what it really thought about pigeons”). She doesn’t so much need to disguise as lend a sympathetic ear. Granny and Nanny put up a front designed to meet people’s expectations of conventional witches. They concoct potions containing “suckrose and akwa”, spout gibberish spells and force an unwilling publisher to pay up money by sheer intimidation. But when it comes to actual old-as-the-hills magic, Granny prefers to work in the background. Her faceoff with a game of cards (“NOT CHESS”) against Pratchett’s popular character Death is chilling. Like some DC or Marvel superhero, Granny does her witching with a figurative mask on.

A superhero and his alter ego raise some interesting questions. Are they one and the same? Are they two different facets of a man’s persona? Bruce Wayne, a billionaire philanderer, is a façade for Batman. It is when he pulls on his cape and cowl, that he can be himself. Bruce Banner and the Hulk are two personalities on the opposite ends of the spectrum: both manifestations of the same person. The case of Walter Plinge, a simple-minded handyman of the Opera House (“… he’s just a very odd odd-job man”), poses a similar question. Hardly anyone pays much attention to Walter; he is a familiar fixture, always hovering in the background. He walks around with an awkward gait, derided by the other crew members with cruel taunts. But when he transforms into the Ghost, he undergoes an apparent personality change. He stands taller; gone is his clumsy shuffle. He leaps around the Opera House in acrobatic movements. He appears authoritative. Walter’s metamorphosis into the Ghost is essentially of the mind; he is two disparate personalities in one soul linked by the love for opera. The Ghost is an outpouring of Walter’s soul; a soul steeped in opera since childhood. Not unlike a magician’s stage persona, the Ghost is a glitzier avatar of Walter well in keeping with the showbiz of opera. To take the superhero analogy further, one could consider the Ghost as the guardian of the opera. Pratchett sets up a parallel thread in Agnes’s journey. Back at Lancre, people pity Agnes for her enormous frame and pass well-meaning but tactless remarks such as “… but she’s got a wonderful personality and good hair”. It always falls upon her to remain calm and sensible in a crisis. She is asked to lend her beautiful voice to Christine instead of taking centre stage herself. She is repeatedly forced fitted into an image by others which she obstinately refuses to wear. Instead she adopts the glamorous persona of Perdita. Through Perdita, she channels her desire to be alluring. Perdita is free to think uncharitable thoughts, be reckless and go off on romantic adventures. But Agnes’s mask is largely internal, for her own benefit; outwardly she is still Agnes. It is largely a battle with herself, defined by her longing for an exciting life and her refusal to accept herself; Perdita is a shield against herself. At one point, Agnes mistakenly thinks that she understands why Walter becomes the Ghost (“You want to be something else. You are stuck with what you are”) echoing her own disappointment instead. Pratchett shows his realist leanings by drawing up a sympathetic portrayal of Agnes, but avoiding giving her a fairytale ending; even the Ghost of the Opera would rather train the less talented Christine than Agnes since Christine has star quality (I was reminded of the “X-Factor” spiel of Indian Idol). This is a sobering moment, shaking your faith in the Ghost, and made all the more powerful when you consider that Walter himself was the object of ridicule due to his ungainly physicality and would have understood Agnes the most. It underscores the notion that Walter becomes an entirely different personality as the Ghost. Agnes’s arc ends with her shedding Perdita and coming to terms with herself. This is in stark contrast to Walter’s. Agnes discards her mask to become her true self; Walter sticks to his Ghost alter ego stunning everyone by his transformation.

While Pratchett’s books are often found in bookstores under the Sci-fi section, they are a blend of several genres. Besides containing some of the Gothic elements of its source novel, Maskerade is at once a mystery story, a coming-of-age bildungsroman and a comic fantasy. Terry Pratchett, unsurprisingly, employs rich word play at every turn ensuring that even if the pace of the novel flags, one can lose oneself in delight in his ingeniously crafted sentences. The entire novel could be published as a book of quotable quotes. They elicit a range of emotions. Some made me chuckle: “The lives of cats are just like operas, when you come to think about it”. Others made me stop and think: “Never pick yourself a name you can’t scrub the floor in”. And then there were those which left me gasping in admiration at the sheer brilliance: Granny getting at the heart of Walter’s dual existence ‘… “ghost” is just another word for “spirit” and “spirit” is just another word for “soul”’. Pratchett’s dexterity in language is matched by his prowess in creating colorful, eccentric and complex characters. He uses every possible opportunity to reveal the layers buried beneath his characters. Even in the case of minor characters, through a single sentence, Pratchett captures their essence (“If civilization were to collapse totally and the survivors were reduced to eating cockroaches, Madame Dawning would still use a napkin and look down on people who ate their cockroaches the wrong way round”). I found myself empathizing the most with Agnes, owing to my insecurities about my looks: a battle I fought for several years. Raised on books, movies and cricket by my parents, especially my mother, I grew up a tomboy. However I started rejecting my values as it came home to me that unattractiveness had no place in society. I loathed myself, even as I made feeble attempts to be more personable. Being foisted with a short temper and a whingeing attitude did not help either (Most movies tend to show ugly-duckling heroines as good-natured). With age and accompanying wisdom, I have made peace with myself. That Pratchett made Agnes, warts and all, as the central heroine is very comforting and cheering. In the process he also subverts the typical portrayals of Gothic heroines as young virtuous, submissive women in peril. Discworld, though fictional, is not unlike our very own and Pratchett gently lampoons it holding up a mirror to the masks we all wear in some form or another.