Time Magazine, European edition, 26 May 2003, p. 40:
Penned It Like Blissett
How a gang of Italian cybernarchists stole a British footballer's name - and wrote a best seller
By Donald Morrison
Football fans may remember the name Luther Blissett. He was the high-scoring striker for England's Watford who was traded to AC Milan for $1 million in 1983. After one disappointing season, he returned to England and obscurity. Now Luther Blissett is back in the headlines as the author of Q (Heinemann; 635 pages), a novel of vast inventiveness, remarkable erudition and highly peculiar origins. First published in Italy in 1999, the book has become a best seller from Austria to Argentina. The British edition appeared earlier this month, and negotiations are now under way for one in the U.S.
But Luther Blissett the footballer didn't write a word of Q. His name was hijacked in the mid-1990s by a band of liberarian-left cyberactivists in Bologna. They called themselves the Luther Blissett Project because, as they wrote in one of their many manifestos, Blissett is "the ineffable alias that means both everybody and nobody." Ineffable is an apt word for the group's nonfiction: dense Internet screeds against globalization, political corruption, corporate control of the media and other capitalist sins. As the project's adherents grew into the thousands across Europe, they also perpetrated some attention-grabbing pranks. They sparked an international manhunt in 19905 after announcing that British artist Harry Kipper had disappeared while bicycling through Europe; Kipper turned out not to exist. Later that year they hijacked a Rome bus to hold a "rave" on board; 18 were arrested though most were later released. And they claimed responsibility for the 1999 theft of four religious statues from churches in southern Italy, demanding that the hierarchy give $53,000 to the poor. The ransom was never paid, the statues never returned.
Given that taste for direct action, it's a wonder the Blissett Project's four founders - Roberto Bui, Giovanni Cattabriga, Federico Guglielmi and Luca Di Meo - had the patience to pen a doorstopper like Q. The novel is a sweeping saga of the 16th century religious wars touched off by the Reformation. Fast-paced, richly detailed and teeming with hundreds of characters, it throbs with violence, heroism, betrayal and sex. The main character, who often changes his name to escape death, witnesses Martin Luther declaiming at Wittenberg, fights in religious wars across Europe and has sex very, very often. His nemesis, Q, a spy for the Vatican, stalks him for more than 30 years, thwarting his vision of a heavenly kingdom on earth, though not his vision of heavenly sex. "We deserve the warmth of baths," the hero concludes in an Istanbul spa after a life of struggle. "May the days be aimless. Do not advance the action according to a plan."
A satisfying formula for life, perhaps, but not for writing a book. So how - and why - did a gang of novelistic neophytes pull it all off? "We had a five-year plan like the Soviet Union's, only ours was successful", says co-author Bui, visiting London last week for the U.K. launch. (An unusual media tour: no television appearances or photographs. Avoiding the corrupting power of fame is a Blissett principle.) "We're fans of pulp novels,", he adds. "We love Elmore Leonard. Also Dashiell Hammett. And James Ellroy, especially American Tabloid, his 1995 novel about John F. Kennedy. We wanted to write a book like that set in Europe." Over five years they sketched out a plot ("except for the ending, which would have been no fun") and divided the novel's many scenes among themselves, with each author rewriting his peers' contributions to maintain a consistent style. By focusing on 16th century peasant revolts and utopian movements, the group was able to make some subtle points consistent with its modern-day beliefs. "A life free of enslavement to money and commodities is a better life," declares the leader of a 1630s Anabaptist community in Antwerp.
The real Luther Blissett, now retired to Watford, has expressed irritation at the identity theft but never tried to stop it. Now he can relax. Bui and his co-authors have dropped the Blissett banner and regrouped as Wu Ming (Chinese for "without a name"). They have become full-time authors and acquired a fifth member - author and punk rocjer Riccardo Pedrini - and recently produced 54, a "screwball comedy" novel set in 1954 featuring Cary Grant and Yugoslavia's Josep Broz Tito. In the works is a historical fantasy about 19th century America. And several members are writing solo novels under the names Wu Ming 1 (Bui) through Wu Ming 5 (Pedrini). But what about the utopian vision, the leftist imagination, the quirky tactics that first brought the group together? "We still like pranks", says Bui. "Now we insert them into our novels." With success, fame may be playing a prank on them.