MYSTERY, HISTORY AND THEOLOGY
If the name of the book is enigmatic, the name of the author is even more so. There is one well known Luther Blissett. Soccer fans will remember him from the early Eighties when he played for Milan AC. After that he was on the coaching staff of York City FC. But then the readers are informed that he has nothing at all to do with the writing of the book. His name serves as the nom de plume for four authors who live in Bologna. That is the first mystery solved. The second mystery is the name of the book. Q turns out to be the name of a spy sent out as a mole in the anti-Vatican forces.
The time is the first half of the 16th century, a very tumultuous period in the history of European Christianity. At the heart of the novel lie the events that engulfed Europe after Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door Wittenburg Cathedral on All Souls Day, 1517. The consequences of Luther’s Reformation spread far beyond matters spiritual. The German princes saw in Luther’s defiance an opportunity to attack the dominance of Rome and the Holy Roman Emperor. Luther’s religious message — all men were equal in the eyes of God and therefore did not need priests as intermediaries — had a wide popular appeal. Peasants found in the message a strength to attack their oppressors, princes and priests. Luther, in a remarkable turnaround, supported the princes. Thus began the reformation within the Reformation, and the peasant war in Germany in 1525.
The novel is situated within the peasant war when religious sects of all kinds flourished and prohibited books were printed and smuggled. The principal narrator is a close associate of Thomas Muntzer who fought next to him and saw him die. Quite understandably, the novel is woven around an insider’s version of the peasant uprising. The descriptions are graphic and have the ring of truth.
The narrator is pursued by the spy of the Vatican, Q. The reports that Q sends back to his master forms the other strand of the novel. Q hunts his quarry, the narrator, through many lives and from the heart of Germany to Antwerp to Venice and to the marshes of the Po valley. The spy’s identity is revealed late in the novel and he becomes the narrator’s ally in an attempt to thwart a devious plot hatched by one of the cardinals.
The novel is fascinating in its details and for its evocation of life, at various levels of society, in early modern Europe. The religious debates are brought to life as is the world of the great bankers, the Fuggers, who had a finger in every important pie in the 16th century.
Umberto Eco made fashionable the detective thriller which is also an exploration of the world of medieval ideas. The authors of Q bring to the battle of ideas, the dimension of violent action. The context of the peasant war and the Inquisition demanded this. The writing, despite the details, is fast, and the research impeccable. But the book makes demands on the reader. A familiarity with the world of the Reformation is a necessary pre-condition for the complete enjoyment.