Red Pepper - raising the political temperature, issue 121 june 2005
Hugely enjoyable read is not always what you think after finishing political writings by a collective, but the latest novel by the five members of Wu Ming is just that, saysBen Skelton
It’s not often that the names of English footballers figure among the authors listed for big literary prizes. It’s even more implausible when they are associated with the anti-capitalism movement. But two years ago Q by Luther Blissett was longlisted for The Guardian’s first book award. Q is both a brilliant historical novel about the Reformation and a coded commentary on contemporary capitalism and globalisation. The Q of the title is a papal informer who pursues the book’s revolutionary hero across Europe as peasants and radical protestant sects of the 16th century rebel against Rome and the continent’s rival monarchies. Church and state combine murderously to restore the status quo. In his bid to elude the Inquisition, the hero assumes a series of different identities that bring him into contact with emerging forces that will eventually dominate the social and political landscape of the early 21st century. A revolution in information technology is being driven by the printing press. International finance is being pioneered by the Fuggers. Global trade is radiating from Venice and Antwerp. The dark arts of the police state are being finessed by the Vatican.
Sadly the Luther Blissett responsible for Q is not the centre forward whose goals took unglamorous Watford to the brink of league championship glory in 1983. It’s a pseudonym for a collective of four writers based in the Italian city of Bologna. (The real Blissett gained notoriety in Italy thanks to a disastrous spell at AC Milan.) The Luther Blissett Project (LBP) was started in 1994 as, its members say, a ‘five-year-plan parody of Stalinist economics’. It committed ritual suicide in 1999, the year Q was first published in Italian. But the demise of the LBP has not meant the end of the collective work of its members. Joined by a fifth member, they now operate as Wu Ming: used as a byline by dissidents in China, the Mandarin means ‘no name’. On 5 May Wu Ming’s first novel, 54, was published in the UK.
The new novel is a tale of cold war intrigue and heroin smuggling set largely in Mediterranean Europe nine years after WWII. Its characters include Yugoslavian president Marshall Tito, inaugural KGB chairman general Ivan Serov, various veterans of the Italian and Balkan wartime resistance against fascism, the Italian-American mobster Lucky Luciano and, acting as an agent for MI6, the actor Cary Grant. Like Q, 54 is a historical novel that comments on contemporary events; and, just like Q, it is a hugely enjoyable read.
Speaking to Red Pepper just before the UK release of 54, Wu Ming collectively explained the significance of their collective and anonymous identity. It is, they say, a conscious rejection ‘of the author as a star, a genius, a gifted individual’: ‘If we’re talking about the “author” with a capitalised “A”, the same you can hear when people say “Art”, then we’re talking about the most trivial marketing strategy adopted by the book industry: they sell the author as more important than his/her books, a person who’s on an upper echelon, who looks down on the public with a nearly super-human sensitiveness … We don’t need “martyrs” and “heroes” of creation anymore. Those descriptions produce alienating cults. You start with the “author”, and you end up having an “authority”.’
The group’s philosophy was summed up in ‘Stories Belong to Everyone: tale-tellers, multitudes and the refusal of intellectual property’, a text by Wu Ming 1 disseminated via the group’s Giap/digest electronic newsletter. (Each of the collective’s members has a different number, which they use when they write or speak as individuals.) Wu Ming 1 stated: ‘We write fiction by using words, images, colours and sounds that we pick up from everyday life, history and the media landscape. A whole open community writes along with us … (Story-telling) is no less integrated in community life than putting out fires, ploughing fields or helping people suffering handicaps.’ Culture is assertion, product and property of community.
Concrete evidence of the collective’s affirmation of the ‘cultural commons’ is provided by their opposition to the corporate appropriation of intellectual property rights. They are crusading advocates of the principle of ‘copyleft’: both Q and 54 can be freely downloaded from their website, and both the website and the books display explicit statements giving permission for third parties to copy, distribute and adapt their work.
The egalitarian approach applies also to the way Wu Ming write their books. You might be forgiven for thinking that a collaboration between five different authors would result in chaos, an insipid design by committee, or authority being unevenly distributed within the group. But the collective describe their creative process thus: ‘There is no hierarchy between us … If there were authority, we couldn’t write. The way things work, it’s like a jazz combo’s radical improvisation … we improvise chunks of plot all together; then homework is assigned. At the next meeting we read the stuff aloud. Everybody can intervene and suggest changes, or the chapter can be reassigned to another guy, and he’ll rewrite parts of it … This all starts after the historical research, during which we write down plenty of notes, which we’ll use for the brainstorming phase. The research is the phase that lasts longest: sometimes we study for 10 to 12 months before we put down a single word.’
Defending cultural freedom and diversity is particularly urgent in countries where so much of the media is dominated by a few or even single individuals: people like Rupert Murdoch or, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi. Since 1994 Berlusconi’s media empire has included Wu Ming’s Italian publisher Einaudi. But in contrast to the British publisher Harper Collins, which was famously accused of dropping the biography of former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten because Murdoch feared its criticisms of Beijing would jeopardise his business interests in China, Wu Ming insist that their Italian publisher is not compromised by Berlusconi’s ownership.
‘Einaudi has always been the most important and prestigious left-wing publishing house in the country,’ they say. ‘The editorial staff were all arrested by the fascists in 1935; some of them were beaten to death in jail … A few years ago the company went bankrupt. To survive and save the catalogue, they had to negotiate with the Mondadori group, whose main shareholder is Fininvest – Berlusconi’s media company. They became part of the group on the condition that they kept their independence. They publish what they want. Most authors who published with Einaudi decided to stay, resist and fight the guerrilla warfare from the inside.’
Wu Ming’s insistence that Einaudi has not been neutered by its relationship with the Italian prime minister is to some extent borne out by the mockery of Berlusconi’s media and political excesses in 54. Set in 1954, the new novel uses extracts from the contemporary Italian press to fill in the historical details: McCarthyism is unravelling in the US; European and American armies are fighting communist forces in Vietnam and Korea… Media bias is most evident in the description of events inside Italy:
‘THE COMMUNIST MANOEUVRE TO STIR UP THE MASSES AGAINST THE GOVERNMENT
‘The left plan to undermine the new Prime Minster despite his moves to combat poverty
‘Speculating on the incidents they THEMSELVES provoked they are trying to create schisms in the governing body …’
Wu Ming explain: ‘Berlusconi’s language is full of the stereotypical anti-communism which was the rhetorical backbone of 1950s political discourse.’ They add that 1954 was the year television arrived in Italy – television is Berlusconi, and one of 54’s twin plot lines details the misadventures of a deluxe TV set as it travels around Italy, passing from owner to owner. The set doesn’t work: eventually, it is revealed that its internal mechanism has been replaced with a hoard of heroin. The metaphor could not be more explicit.
In addition to Q and 54, Wu Mings 1, 2 and 5 have all written novels individually. These books sound just as fascinating as the collective works. For example, the collective describe Wu Ming 5’s Havana Glam as ‘a weird s-f novel’: ‘A time travel mission creates a bifurcation at the middle of the 20th century. In the early 1970s of this parallel dimension, David Bowie has a “communist period”. He’s fascinated by Cuba and Che Guevara, etc.’
Sadly, there are no immediate plans to release the individually produced novels in the UK. The same applies to the Wu Ming-scripted feature film Radio Alice, set during the Bologna student uprising of 1977. Fans of the collective’s work should not despair, however. Wu Ming are already busy on a follow-up to 54. They say: ‘We have been working on the new novel for about a year. It will take at least two more to finish. It is set in the 1770s in London and the not-yet United States.’ Images of Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man and 18th century revolutionary politics spring to mind. Can’t wait.
54 is published by William Heinemann, price £16.99; www.wumingfoundation.com