Scottish trainThe Philadelphia Inquirer, Sunday, October 29, 2006

Collectively written novel is a fine, sprawling epic

By Wu Ming
Translated from the Italian
by Shaun Whiteside
Harcourt. 560 pp. $25
Reviewed by Richard Di Dio

McGuffin: noun; a plot device, often used in films, that motivates characters and advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story itself; Alfred Hitchcock's term, describing a mysterious package in a story set on a Scottish train.
About the only thing you won't find in 54 - the highly entertaining and imaginative Italian best-seller by Wu Ming - is a Scottish train. But you will find a spaghetti-jumble of interconnected stories in settings that range from Italy to Yugoslavia to Hollywood, and with a very unusual group of characters - Cary Grant, Marshal Tito, Grace Kelly, Lucky Luciano, Vietnamese Emperor Bao Dai, and - Alfred Hitchcock.
Mandarin Chinese for "no name," Wu Ming is a collective of five Bolognese self-proclaimed "guerrilla writers." It may be that only a group of this size and ethos can successfully create such an audacious novel.
Most of the action in 54 takes place in 1954 against a backdrop of momentous postwar events for Italy and the world: the reacquisition by Italy of the free territory of Trieste, the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, and the Yugoslavian break from the Soviet camp after the signing of the Balkan Pact.
54's multiple story lines pass through Pierre Capponi, the youngest son of an Italian partisan who fled Italy during World War II to join Tito's forces in Yugoslavia and never returned. In a country where who you are is what you did during the war (are you fascist, partisan, communist?), Pierre, too young to be in the war, is a postwar slacker, working at his brother's bar and living from dance hall to dance hall until he begins an affair with the wife of a physician.
The fallout from this liaison sets off a chain of events that ultimately finds Pierre on a dangerous trip in search of his father. Pierre's adventures constitute the quest for his own identity as he crosses paths with Mafiosi, smugglers, ex-partisans, KGB operatives and Archibald Leach, also known as Cary Grant - who is working for the British as a spy in their efforts to recruit Tito into the Western sphere.
With farcical, nonsubtle subtlety, Wu Ming does introduce a plot device to help move the story along: the theft of a TV from an Allied military base. The TV is a McGuffin Electric, which Wu Ming anthropomorphizes into a recurring character.
Written in very short, fast-paced chapters, 54's action is almost filmlike. At first I found the style jarring, and assumed the chapters were individual contributions from separate members - five ultracompetitive authors in search of an editor. But I soon adapted to the rhythm, and was pulled into the Wu Ming maelstrom, buying everything from Cary Grant's spycraft to a thinking TV, thanks to the ultimate cohesiveness of the narrative.
The members of Wu Ming are not anonymous - their identities are easily found on the Web - but they don't deviate from their collective stance, referring to themselves (and publishing solo works) as Wu Ming 3, for example. The consistent writing tone does not come easily: "after... months of collective editing, we don't even remember who wrote what. All variations in style are purposefully crafted by the whole group, after detailed discussions."
The collective effort works remarkably well. 54 is a great, sprawling epic. Serious and satirical, it can be read as a spy novel, gangster thriller and political manifesto, with enough scenes of unsavory characters, drug smuggling, shoot-outs, and doomed love affairs to resemble a Romanzo della Polpa (pulp fiction). But this would be a shallow reading - 54 is much more complicated, and simple. At its heart it is a story of the hopes and expectations we have for ourselves and each other, and how the forces of history, life and love can dash and rebuild these.
Served up with plenty of McGuffins, of course.

Richard Di Dio teaches physics and mathematics at La Salle University.