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Q

US edition
Giap-digest # 25 - Forgive Me, I'm Just A Fruit Picker - 29 February 2004


Forgive Me, I'm Just A Fruit Picker
Notes on Pricks, Sons of Bitches, the Language We Used in Q and the Edulcoration of the Past

by Wu Ming
(formerly known as "Luther Blissett", authors of the novel Q)


In the past ten months, since our first novel [*] was published in English, some reviewers have complained about the allegedly "anachronistic" language we used in the book.
As a matter of fact, any novel that's written nowadays but is set in a fairly remote past is to be penned in a more or less "anachronistic" language, at least if the author wants people to read it. You may try to be as "philologically correct" as possible, but you have to draw the line before the book becomes unreadable.
Moreover, had we been 100% consistent, we should have written the novel in an alternance of Ecclesiastical Latin, "pidgin Latin" and old Germanic dialects. We don't know about the U.S., where people are smarter, but that wouldn't have been a popular choice among our dumb fellow countrypersons.
In the novel we used a plenty of different styles. Our choice was aimed at rendering the canyon-like gap between the roughness of spoken languages and the pompousness of writing styles. In order to render this in our mother tongue, sometimes we borrowed syntax and vocabulary from northern Italian dialects. Shaun Whiteside has done a very good job in traslating both the snappy lines and the bombastic letters. We really like the pace of the English version.

However, those reviewers are not talking about that. They're talking about profanity. They're talking about foul language. Although they use the term "anachronisms", obscene utterances is what they really mean.
There were complaints about "the wealth of f**k's and 's**t's" in the novel. Like that. Luckily enough, such complaints always came from critics, not the public.

The novel will reach US bookstores next May. Publishers' Weekly recently ran an advance review (evidently based on the reading of the first thirty pages, probably even less) which now welcomes people hitting the Amazon and Barnes & Noble pages of the book. (It gon' be hard, ain't it?)
The key passage of this text is:

Speech anachronisms abound throughout, especially when events are related by Metzger and company ("What the fuck did you say? What? So you're not dead, but you scare me anyway, pal, you scare me").

Uhm... Looks like it's time to set the records straight on this matter of "anachronisms".

Do these people have any idea of the language spoken by plebeians in sixteenth century Europe?
Do they believe that the lower classes wouldn't use "cuss words" back then?
Maybe they think that such words as "fuck" or "shit" were invented in the twentieth century.
Human beings always cursed and swore, they did it in all ages, always by referring to catabolism, rough sex and the genitals. In Romance languages (Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Rumanian etc.) we still use the Latin words, e.g. "merda" [shit] and "culum" [ass].
As far as the history of the Italian language goes, one of the earliest written sentences in Vulgar (ancient Italian) is "Fili de le pute traite" [Pull, you sons of whores!], which appears on a Twelfth Century fresco in a Roman church.

Q is set in the Sixteenth Century, right? Well, people of all classes were extremely foul-mouthed back then.
In 1525 - the year of the Battle of Frankenhausen which kicks off our novel - a Sienese nobleman called Antonio Vignali wrote a text titled La cazzaria [The book of the Dick], a sort of philosophical dialogue on sex, sodomy and penises. The text is filled with such words as "cazzo" [cock], "potta" [pussy], "culo" [ass], "fica" [cunt], "scopare" [fuck], "merda" [shit], "coglioni" [balls], "cacca" [turd] and "inculare" [stick the cock up one's asshole].
This text was excellently translated by Ian F. Moulton and published in the US as La Cazzaria. The Book Of The Prick (Routledge, 2003).
One of the most important Italian writers and poets of the Sixteenth Century was Pietro Aretino (born 1492 - dead 1556). Here's a (roughly) translated stanza from one of his Sonetti lussuriosi [Lustful Sonnets]:

Such a terrific cock I'm feeling
That it chips the edges of my pussy
I wish I was all pussy
And I sure wish you were all cock.

Another one?

These sonnets of mine, filled with cocks
And talking only about cocks, asses, and cunts,
They all look like you, you dickheads!

Streetwise, sex-related, profane literature drawing from the language of real life was already very common in the Ancient Rome, just think of the notorious
Carmina Priapea [Songs of Priapus] (first century aC).
One of the poems is precisely a satire on the gap between literary and everyday language:

If you hear me talking like an ignorant boor, forgive me.
I don't read books, I'm just a fruit picker.
Yes I'm rough, but I listen to my master when he reads,
And I've learnt many Homeric terms.
He calls the dick a "steaming thunderbolt",
The ass he calls it "sheath",
And smerdaleos must be something dirty,
Like the cock once you've stuck it up one's ass.

The puns here are very funny. The farm laborer mistakes Greek terms for cuss words in Latin. E.g. "Smerdaleos" is Greek for "frightening" but sounds like "smerdatus", which is Latin for "streaked with shit".

Louis XIV. Under the wig, the worms.Until not a long time ago, common people used to - literally - live in excrements. They would defecate in ditches or in pots whose content was thrown out in the street. At night they would urinate in a chamber-pot that remained under the bed until sunup. They would never take bathes. They all stank and had very bad breath.
Still in the Eighteenth century aristocrats took bathes twice a year. Back in the Seventeenth century, Louis XIV a.k.a. the Sun King took bathes twice in all his life!
It is absolutely normal that the language of those times reflected the universal, unavoidable presence of the results of bodily functions (bladder and bowel movements, perspiration, bad digestion, and sexual arousement). The Church did exercise repression and control of the bodies, but that kind of repression is rarely effective and often has the opposite effect. In Catholic countries, where the Inquisition once was on the prowl, people are usually foul-mouthed and the oral tradition is very lascivious.

In 1525 we weren't born yet, but we bet nobody, NOBODY, used to talk like the characters of historical novels or period piece movies usually do.
Perhaps the critics' expectations of how "period" language should sound depend too much on either hi-brow bourgeois literature or Hollywood cloak-and-dagger flicks, or even both things.

That kind of fiction is usually based upon a very muddled idea of what "old Europe" was like.

That kind of fiction is flavored with archaisms and linguistic clich├ęs, in order to make the language "European-sounding". A common strategy is to write conversations replete with stately words, no matter the class, race and gender of the speaker.

That kind of fiction features princes and princesses who are unfailingly gourgeous and clean, when in fact royals were likely to be ill-formed and ugly (as a result of endogamic mating), and they certainly emitted breath-taking smells.

We are not interested in that kind of edulcoration.

We'd rather go for "smerdaleous" fiction.

Bologna, Italy, February 29, 2004

(*) Q was written under the pseudonym "Luther Blissett" and published in Italy in 1999. The first edition in English was the British one (Heinemann, 2003 - hardcover). In May 2004 it will be published in the US by Harcourt and in paperback edition in the UK.


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