Call me Ismail

Thomas Jones

  • Altai by Wu Ming, translated by Shaun Whiteside
    Verso, 263 pp, £16.99, May 2013, ISBN 978 1 78168 076 6

Between 1975 and 1983, Luther Blissett made 246 appearances as a striker for Watford FC and scored 95 goals. When he joined the club they were in the Fourth Division. When he signed for AC Milan for £1 million in 1983 he was the First Division’s top scorer, with 27 goals in the 1982-83 season. He didn’t do so well at Milan, scoring only five goals in 30 games; after a year they sold him back to Watford for £550,000. In his international debut, a 9-0 demolition of Luxembourg at Wembley in 1982, he netted three goals, the first black player to score a hat-trick for England. He retired from league football in 1994, and his name, ‘for reasons that remain unknown’, was

informally adopted and shared by hundreds of artists and social activists all over Europe … In Italy, between 1994 and 1999, the so-called Luther Blissett Project (an organised network within the open community sharing the ‘Luther Blissett’ identity) … waged a guerrilla warfare on the cultural industry, ran unorthodox solidarity campaigns for victims of censorship and repression and – above all – played elaborate media pranks as a form of art.[1]

The name offered both anonymity and solidarity to the people who used it. In May 1995, around seventy Luther Blissetts assembled in front of the register office in Rome in the early hours of the morning to protest against the ‘fetish of identity’ and for the right to call yourself whatever you want, whenever you want. The Luther Blissetts’ pranks included inventing a number of imaginary artists: according to fake stories fed to the newspapers, ‘Harry Kipper’ went missing in January 1995 while tracing the word ‘art’ across Europe on his mountain bike; ‘Darko Maver’, a Serbian sculptor and conceptual artist who made models of bloody corpses, was said to have died in a Nato bombing raid in 1999. The photographs, supposedly of Maver’s sculptures, that were exhibited in Italy turned out to be pictures of actual dead bodies harvested from the internet.

The Luther Blissett Project disbanded in December 1999, saying that its Five Year Plan had come to an end (though plenty of people still use the identity). A few months earlier, a sprawling, page-turning, violent, thrilling, occasionally even funny picaresque novel, Q, had appeared, published under the name Luther Blissett and written by four Bologna-based members of the LBP. It has sold more than 200,000 copies in Italy, and tens of thousands in the rest of Europe (Heinemann published it in English in 2003). Set in 16th-century Europe, it ranges across three decades and hundreds of miles, from Antwerp to Rome, through some of the bloodiest episodes of the Reformation. The narrator is anonymous, of course, or rather polyonymous. ‘The names are the names of the dead,’ he says in the prologue, looking back from 1555. A student at Wittenberg, he becomes a follower of the radical theologian Thomas Müntzer after witnessing a dispute between Müntzer and Martin Luther; Luther Blissett is very much not on his namesake’s side.

The narrator’s story begins a few years later, in medias res, at Frankenhausen on 15 May 1525, when Philip of Hesse’s mercenaries crushed the peasants led by Müntzer in one of the last battles of the German Peasants’ War. Müntzer was captured, tortured – confessing his heretical belief that ‘omnia sunt communia,’ ‘everything belongs to everybody’ – and beheaded. Our man narrowly escapes, and in the woods outside Frankenhausen sheds his first blood, killing three mercenaries and disguising himself in their clothes. In 1534 he’s in Münster, during the brief period when the Anabaptists seized power, abolished private property and declared the city the New Jerusalem – under siege, the utopia rapidly turns to hell. His later adventures include taking part in an elaborate scheme to defraud the pope’s bankers, and distributing heretical texts throughout Italy from his base at a brothel in Venice. By this time he has long since lost whatever faith he may once have had; he is devoted only to causing the powerful as much trouble as he can, and to tracking down and confronting his nemesis, Q, a secret agent of the Church.

The story has clear 20th-century political echoes, the Protestant factions reminiscent of the postwar Italian left. Luther’s cosying up to the elector of Saxony may call to mind the Italian Socialist Party’s capitulation to the Christian Democrats in the early 1960s (they formed a coalition government in 1963), or the Communist Party’s ‘historic compromise’ with them in 1976, or more generally, the corruption of the political class. ‘The people have risen up, but where is their pastor? Fattening himself in some luxurious castle!’ The early parts of Q have a certain amount in common with Gli invisibili, Nanni Balestrini’s breathless, hypnotic novel of the Autonomist struggles of the 1970s (Autonomia was a self-organising – no unions or party affiliations – working-class resistance movement): ‘I get hit on the arm I feel a shooting pain I look round but there’s such confusion that I can’t tell who did it … the PCI militants turn up in droves more and more of them all the time and they get behind the police and egg them on to clear us off.’[2] The years when the Luther Blissett Project was active also saw the rise of the Tute Bianche (‘white overalls’) anti-capitalist protest movement, which culminated in the anti-G8 demonstrations in Genoa in 2001, violently suppressed by the police – Carlo Giuliani, a 23-year-old activist, was shot dead, his corpse run over twice by a carabinieri vehicle.

But Q isn’t directly allegorical; it’s more that the patterns of resistance, rebellion and repression that are traced in the novel repeat themselves throughout history. The narrator, with his many names and none, no fixed identity and no real character to speak of (the authors have described him as a ‘narrative vector’), has a certain amount in common with his phantasmal creator. Like Luther Blissett, he is an elusive legend, persisting in a struggle others consider to have been lost long ago.

In January 2000, a month after the break-up of the LBP, a fifth writer joined the four authors of Q and they formed a new collective called Wu Ming, which means ‘nameless’ (or, with a falling-rising tone on the first syllable, ‘five names’) in Chinese. They aren’t in fact anonymous, and don’t try to be: their names are Roberto Bui, Giovanni Cattabriga, Luca Di Meo (who left in 2008), Federico Guglielmi and Riccardo Pedrini. Wu Ming is simply the name of the band – like, they say, the Rolling Stones. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a photograph of any of them, and they are firmly opposed to the cult of celebrity in any form. They also reject such labels as ‘situationist’ or ‘anarchist’, which, they say, are applied to them by lazy journalists obsessed with categorising everything. Not that they have anything against those movements: some of their best friends are anarchists, it’s just that they aren’t.

Wu Ming, according to lutherblissett.net, is ‘more focused on literature and storytelling in the narrowest sense of the word’ than the Luther Blissett Project was, but ‘no less radical’. As well as the collectively written novels, they run a blog, Giap (as in the Vietnamese general),[3] and have produced a number of solo works, most recently Point Lenana, by Wu Ming One (Bui) and Roberto Santachiara, which ‘revolves around’ the life of Felice Benuzzi, who escaped from a British POW camp with two other men in 1943 to climb Mount Kenya, then broke back in again afterwards.[4] Despite the focus on literature and storytelling, Wu Ming are still active in grassroots political campaigning, on a national level (opposing water privatisation, for example) and a local one (e.g. against public money being given to private schools in Bologna).

Unsurprisingly, they’re not unduly impressed by the cult of Berlusconi, unlike many of the old crook’s detractors as well as his fans, but are able to see him both as a symptom and as a cause of Italy’s political malaise. They’ve also long been among the most cogent critics of Beppe Grillo and his Five Star Movement, whose ‘anti-political’ bluster they see as a right-wing buttress for the status quo and an obstacle to any genuinely oppositional mass movement in Italy. The net result of Grillo’s impressive showing at the polls in February and his vainglorious grandstanding afterwards is a coalition between Berlusconi’s right-wing Popolo della Libertà and the left-of-centre group headed by the Partito Democratico, which insisted, until the last moment, that it would never go into partnership with Berlusconi: in other words, it’s business as usual at Montecitorio, precisely the opposite of what Grillo’s supporters thought they were voting for. In local elections since then, support for the M5S has unsurprisingly plummetted. (Ukip, take note.) Wu Ming’s response: there’s nothing more boring than being proved right.

Altai, published in Italy in 2009, follows 54 (set in 1954, at the height of the postwar ‘economic miracle’, in which, among much else, MI6 recruits Cary Grant for a secret mission to Yugoslavia) and Manituana, set during the American War of Independence.[5] The action of the next book will take place during the French Revolution. Despite the historical and geographical range, you may notice a theme here: as Wu Ming have put it, all the novels offer counternarratives to foundational myths. The group have compared what they do in their fiction to looking for the cracks in the back of a monument and inserting sharp instruments into them to bring the edifice crashing to the ground. The important thing then is to make sure that another monument isn’t built from the rubble; better a house where people can come and talk. The image, characteristically, is both elaborate and appealing.

The English edition of Altai bills itself on the cover as ‘the sequel to the bestselling Q’, though it doesn’t exactly pick up the story where the earlier book left off; rather, it’s set in the same world and has a few of the same characters. It is considerably shorter and more tightly constructed than any of Wu Ming’s previous collaborations. There is none of Q’s uneven pacing (the first novel’s central section, the siege of Münster, is a tour de force, but the book takes too long to get going and then scurries over some of the later stuff). But this also makes Altai a more conventional novel, lacking its predecessor’s wild exuberance.

The narrators of the two books have a fair amount in common: multiple names and identities; solid survival instincts; a nose for the hunt; a taste for trickery; and a weakness for charismatic leaders. Emanuele de Zante, though, works for the authorities: he’s one of Venice’s leading spycatchers. When the Arsenale catches fire in September 1569, he turns out to be the perfect scapegoat. Like Giuseppe Nasi, La Serenissima’s public enemy number one, a fabulously wealthy former resident last seen in the final pages of Q and now thought to be plotting the republic’s downfall from the capital of the Ottoman Empire, de Zante is Jewish. Only one other person in Venice knows his secret, because she knows he is circumcised. And she betrays him to his colleagues. He manages to evade them and, after a rapid series of (mis)adventures, winds up in Constantinople, working for Nasi, who helps him to rediscover his Jewish roots, and encourages him to go back to his childhood name, Manuel Cardoso. The novel’s title is a reference to his hybrid identity. He meets a falconer with an Altai falcon: ‘its mother comes from the icy marshes at the edge of the world,’ the falconer says, ‘and its father from the deserts of central Asia … Two different breeds, but similar enough to be able to mate.’

Nasi wants the Ottomans to take Cyprus from the Venetians so that he can establish an independent Jewish homeland there, which he means to defend with state of the art iron cannon imported from England – the 16th-century equivalent of nuclear weapons. Cardoso isn’t the only politico-religious refugee from Europe’s fundamentalist theocracies whom Nasi looks to for help. The narrator of Q, now calling himself Ismail, has returned to Constantinople after eight years in Yemen. He disapproves of Nasi’s project – ‘I have been to the New Zion,’ he says, ‘I have seen the prophets of the Kingdom at work’ – but goes along with it anyway. On their adventures together, the differences between the two narrators become as apparent as the similarities. Cardoso is in many ways a conventional novelistic character, with a back story, motivation and inner conflict; but Ismail remains stubbornly mysterious. As one of his companions says of him, ‘he is the stories he tells. When he feels like it, which he seldom does. Usually he prefers to write them down.’

Unlike the narrator of Q, but like most of us in the West today, Cardoso follows the war largely from the safety of a remote metropolis. He marvels at a telescope, thinking ‘how useful and at the same time how dangerous such a tool would be if it were made accessible to everyone. Spies would be able to look into people’s houses from a comfortable distance. Governments would be able to control the activities of their subjects.’ But sometimes you can’t see everything from a comfortable distance, and Cardoso volunteers to go to Cyprus for Nasi to find out what’s taking so long (it’s nothing mysterious, simply that the place Nasi wants to be the new home for his people without a land is not a land without a people). Ismail goes with him. They arrive just in time to see Famagusta fall, and Cardoso witnesses the full horror of Lala Mustafa’s merciless victory over the infidel. Wu Ming have said that one of the things they intended to show in Altai was that ‘revolutions cannot be bought or dictated from above’. Getting the Ottoman Empire to do Nasi’s dirty work for him is not going to make Cyprus a safe haven. ‘Freedom,’ Ismail tells Cardoso at one point, ‘never remains the same; it changes according to the way you hunt. And if you train dogs to catch it for you, you may just bring back a doggy kind of freedom.’ In reply, Cardoso quotes Machiavelli on ends and means. ‘Over the years, I’ve learned that the means change the end,’ Ismail says. Cardoso goes in search of intrigue in the place where Nasi hopes to build utopia, but finds only atrocity.

The Christians took their revenge within weeks, annihilating the Ottoman fleet at the Battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571 (Cardoso is there). The battle has become a foundational myth for clash-of-civilisationers from Venice to Virginia: a piece in the American Spectator a few years ago described its anniversary as one that ‘we (or the better informed among us at least) celebrate’ for ‘marking the date in 1571 when the navy of Pope Pius V’s Holy League turned back the Ottoman Turks from one of their recurrent jihads’. In Wu Ming’s telling it’s not something for modern Christendom to gloat over: the defeat of a self-confident empire overreaching itself in an unnecessary war of foreign expansion.

[2] Liz Heron’s translation, The Unseen, was reissued by Verso in 2011, with a foreword by Antonio Negri.

[4] Einaudi, 608 pp., €20, April, 978 88 06 21075 5.

[5] All the novels have been translated into English by Shaun Whiteside, an honorary sixth member of the Wu Ming collective, and his versions are for the most part a fine, fluid rendering of the Italian. And not just Italian: there are smatterings of Latin, Venetian and Pugliese dialect, Ladino, Spanish, Hebrew, Turkish and Arabic to contend with, too. The dialect he sensibly translates into standard English, rather than going for an ‘equivalent’ variant; the rest he tends to leave in the original and translate afterwards where helpful.