The importance of being Vimes
- Sherwin Pineda () - May 17, 2009 - 12:00am

This Week’s Winner

Sherwin Pineda has been a corporate writer since he can remember. Professionally, he’s written just about everything from advertising copy to web content to grammar tests, but what he’s really aspiring for is to get one of the many novels he’s penned throughout the years published.

MANILA, Philippines – There are, of course, as many influences in a life as there are books in a library. You can’t really be influenced by just one book into becoming the person you are today. I’ve never trusted people who say that the one book that changed their lives is The Alchemist. The Alchemist — for me anyway — is the type of book that’s read by people who don’t read books.

So when I say this particular book changed my life — all I mean is that this book stirred me in ways that other books haven’t, or couldn’t. The book is Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett, which features Samuel Vimes as its lead character. Vimes is perhaps one of the most fully realized characters in modern fantasy. For me, he is far more than just an intriguing anti-hero — Vimes also happens to be one of my fictional role models.

Which I admit is a cringe-worthy pretentious thing to say. A fictional character for a role model? Very cheeky. And after that crack about Pablo Coelho’s book, too…

Allow me to explain.

The Discworld is a series of novels written by Terry Pratchett to satirize everything in general and fantasy novels in particular. There are seven City Watch novels (a maxi-series within the Discworld series), of which Night Watch is number six. The City Watch novels revolve around the adventures of…well, Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch. Ankh-Morpork being the largest and most powerful city in all the Discworld — an amalgamation of modern New York and Victorian London. The novels satirize mysteries, crime and police procedural books.

While each Discworld can be read in any order, Night Watch would probably create a bigger impact if you grew up with Vimes; that is to say, if you have followed his adventures in the previous City Watch novels. Then, you could really see the transformation and the maturity of the character.

Despite becoming the second most powerful man in Ankh-Morpork, Vimes remains at the core a street copper who fights dirty and maintains an anti-authority outlook even though, as the Patrician Lord Havelock Vetinari once pointed out, he is authority. He hates the upper crust with a passion even though no one else is richer than him.

Night Watch opens with Samuel Vimes, duke of Ankh-Morpork, commander of the City Watch — not to mention with a wife awaiting labor — wondering what he ever did to deserve all this good fortune. Sure, it’s a cushy life but deep down he missed being on the streets, fighting for his life in some melee against thugs. The book takes off when he accidentally travels back 30 years into the past (this is fantasy after all) where no one knows who he is.

To top it off, this Ankh-Morpork — the city of his youth — is chaotic, dangerous, volatile, and on the verge of a revolution.

At first he thinks it’s fun, once again being allowed to wear boots whose soles were so cardboard thin that he could tell where he was in the city by the feel of the cobblestones beneath his feet. He relishes patrolling the night in that energy-conserving walk that he’s so proud of. He takes pleasure in sleeping upright underneath doorways to keep most of the rain from soaking him.

Then, of course, he starts feeling that his enjoyment is a betrayal of his wife and his city in the future.

He spends the bulk of the book upsetting dumb and corrupt law officers, making powerful enemies, getting a what-should-have-been-a-failure-of-a-revolution right — oh and teaching his younger self how to become the kind of copper who doesn’t take bribes and makes the right decisions that so-called decent people might find dishonorable.

As I reread all the City Watch books, and Night Watch in particular, again and again over the last five years, I’ve grown to understand the reason Sam Vimes speaks to me on such a deep level.

I’m quite like him in that, deep down, we both know we’re downright bastards. But despite this, like Vimes I try to be decent in any way I can even though I always fall short of expectations. People say, “Do this because it’s decent,” or “Do this because it’s right.” But, really, that doesn’t add up, at least for me. What is decent? What is right? Still I do try. As Vimes points out in Night Watch, “You do the job that’s in front of you.”

I do it. The job in front of me, living this battered existence. I struggle on a daily basis, fighting — just fighting — with myself, just to pick myself up in the morning and do the job that’s in front of me. But what if you can’t anymore? What if the job in front of you — whether it’s being a father or keeping an opinion to yourself because to do otherwise would offend others — what if these things keep you from being you? 

In the novel the major conflict for Sam Vimes is that he has to choose between keeping history just the way he remembered it and fighting to prevent the inevitable. It was a choice between guaranteeing he has a life to return to in the future and changing the future to prevent people he knew would die in the next couple of days from dying. He knows that if he meddles too much, his future might not happen. His marriage, his honors, all his work, his not-yet-born child may never be.

But Sam Vimes would not — could not — sacrifice the lives of his men for his own happiness or for the so-called greater good. If he doesn’t fight with every dirty trick he knows, with every ounce of his being… 

There are things you cannot compromise because compromising them means you have to stop being you.

The comics genius Alan Moore spoke about this in V for Vendetta: No matter what, do not give up that last remaining inch of you because, in that one inch, you are free.

I look at my life. I am thirty-plus years old and a father of a hyperactive prodigy (don’t raise an eyebrow — all parents think their child is a prodigy, even if said child likes sticking glue up his little nostrils). I have compromised so much for other people, for the sake of decency. In a Catholic society, you can never truly be free.

Who I am deep down, as I already hinted at, is not a good person. I have sick thoughts and immoral hopes. I fear that my daughter will grow up to have a father she would be ashamed of, a constant source of embarrassment. I am always aware that there’s a chance that I will f**k up this little girl’s life and that very thought petrifies me.

I think about this a lot. I can raise my daughter the way other people — decent people — think children should be raised. I can do that. I can give her a normal life. I know I can. But I don’t know if I should. See, I don’t know if that’s the right decision.

I think about what Vimes might do. He’s not the smartest guy around. In many areas, he’s downright stupid. But his conviction — his unwillingness to surrender that last inch — is something that I want to emulate.

Well, okay. Let’s go back to the book first. Near the end, when Sam Vimes, after all the hell he’s gone through, returns to the future, finally sees his first-born for the first time.

 “He’s called Sam, Sam. And no arguments,” says his wife. And Vimes says, “I’ll teach him to walk! I’m good at teaching people to walk.” After which, he collapses from sheer exhaustion.

This precious moment has made me weep the last few times I’ve read it despite the fact that I was expecting it. It didn’t happen the first time I read it. But I didn’t have a daughter then.

I can’t teach Dimity how to be proper because I’m not proper. I can’t teach her to be charitable because I’m not charitable. I can’t tell her to fear God because I have no god. I can’t say to her, “Be humble.” I’ve got ego pouring out of my ears.

Who I am is an awkward bastard who almost always says the wrong thing every time he talks to people.

But.

There are things you cannot compromise because compromising them means you have to stop being you.

I’ll teach you to write, Dmitry. I’ll teach you to love words as much as I do. For everything else, we’re going to have to work at it together.


ANKH-MORPORK BOOK CITY CITY WATCH DISCWORLD MDASH NIGHT WATCH PEOPLE VIMES WATCH
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