Monday, January 16, 2012
Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago.
“54” Wu Ming (first published in Italian 2002; English translation 2005)
As you may be aware by now, I usually use this “Something Old” slot to recommend older books that are still worth reading. But not always. Sometimes I comment on books that are of some historical interest only or on books that reveal a particular trend. Such is the case with the two books examined this week. If you like cheap thrills and a pacey, if highly improbable and overlong, narrative, then go ahead and read them. If you like something more substantial, do avoid. But the two books seem very relevant after considering something by Umberto Eco.
Allow me to explain.
Despite what their title pages say, both books were written by a bunch of hip Italian practical jokers. In the 1990s, Roberto Bui, Giovanni Catabriga, Federico Gugliemi and Luca di Meo formed a consortium under the collective name “Luther Blissett”. Purely as a joke, they borrowed this name from an English soccer star. They proceeded to perpetrate cyber-jokes and provocations over the internet, often aimed at proving how gullible the mainstream media were in accepting as factual their fabrications. All very post-modern and very ”death of the author”. In 1999 they collectively produced the historical novel Q, attributed to “Luther Blissett”. However, fearing that the punch had gone out of the pseudonym, they abandoned it. When a fifth joker, Riccardo Pedrini, joined the group, they changed their collective pseudonym to “Wu Ming”, reputedly Chinese for “Anonymous”. It was as “Wu Ming” that in 2002 they brought out another fat historical novel, 54.
The 600-odd pages of Q ostensibly take place over 40 years of the 16th century in Reformation Europe. The loose picaresque plot has a radical Protestant revolutionary (actually more revolutionary than Protestant) pursued across time and many countries by the most fiendish, devious and Machiavellian of papal agents, who simply signs himself Q. It is Q who provokes rebelling German Protestant peasants to great excesses, which cause the German Lutheran princes to turn on them and slaughter them. It is Q who eggs on the crazy Anabaptists to become so totalitarian that Dutch Calvinists are willing to help the Catholic bishop put them down. Finally Q and the novel’s hero (whose name keeps changing) square off in Venice, supporting respectively the conservative and liberal wings of the Catholic church as it goes through the messy business of reforming itself. Q is on the side of the Inquisition, of course.
Like Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (and other of his works) this is essentially a conspiracy story set in the past, which attempts to have modern resonance. The collective authors make some simplistic modern equations. Counter-Reformation Catholic power is like United States-led global capitalism. The printing press is like the Internet, spearheading cultural subversion. Radical Protestant revolutionaries are like anti-globalism campaigners. (And they do an awful lot of bonking and swearing). Calvin and Luther are the smug revolutionary leaders who sell out for power.
When I reviewed this novel for the Dominion-Post (on 12 July 2003, to be precise) I noted that it had more than a smidgeon of Stalinist fantasy to it. Blaming the excesses of historical Protestantism (Anabaptism; Lutheran-led slaughters etc.) on a devilishly cunning papal agent is a bit like blaming the famines and inefficiencies of the 1930s Soviet Union on (non-existent) Trotskyite wreckers and saboteurs. It saves the collective authors the bother of investigating the fissiparous nature of Reformation Protestantism and its failures. As history, its conspiracy theory is nonsense.
But (sorry about giving myself a pat on the back here) my review also anticipated Umberto Eco by noting how much the story resembled the 19th century ‘historical’ novels of Alexandre Dumas. Same superficial resemblance to history. Same fondness for conspiracy theories. Same vivid melodrama with action taking precedence over subtlety of character. Same anarchic schoolboy sense of fun. In all but the last feature, the “Luther Blissett” collective were also very like Umberto Eco. Furthermore, the collective resembled Dumas in writing as a team. (It is well-documented that Dumas sometimes signed his name to works that he had supervised rather than actually writing in toto himself.)
Two years later (Dominion-Post, 2 July 2005) I got to review the 540 pages of 54, the Italian team’s first outing as “Wu Ming”. If Q is formed about conspiracy theories, then 54 is formed about another post-modern hobby-horse, the fabrication of identity. It is set in 1954 and the Cold War. In the background, the Korean War and the McCarthy hearings are winding down, the United States invades Guatemala and Stalin is dead but his successors don’t know which way to jump in dealing with that heretic Tito in Yugoslavia.
There are numerous plotlines. One has a young Italian Communist trying to find the father he hasn’t seen since he deserted Mussolini’s army and joined Tito’s partisans. Another has the Mafia boss “Lucky” Luciano proving the benefits of free enterprise by developing the heroin trade. Yet another has the British secret service, in Hollywood, attempting to persuade Cary Grant to appear in a movie glorifying Tito so that Tito will align with the West. There is also a strand of plot involving a television set called a “McGuffin”. As film followers know, a “McGuffin” was the name Alfred Hitchcock (who also appears in this novel) gave to any silly pretext for getting a thriller rolling. It is a signal that we are not meant to take it all too seriously.
54 ends with us being introduced to Fidel Castro, as if his arrival heralds a new dawn for humanity. Its left-wing sympathies are clear enough, but its real preoccupation is with this matter of identity. After all, Cary Grant is really the Englishman Archie Leach, who only pretends to be a Hollywood star. Josip Broz only pretends to be Tito. Josef Dzujashvili only pretends to be Stalin. Identity is merely a fabrication for public consumption, just as (according to post-modern dogma) reality is merely representation and reception.I repeat, both these books can be read for the sheer fun of an incident-filled romp, just as Umberto Eco’s can. But, like Umberto Eco’s, they eventually become tiresome in their mixing of fiction with verifiable historical fact, and in their pretence that a distinction between the two doesn’t matter.