October 2, 2005
By Wu Ming
William Heinemann, $32.95
THIS is the second novel by the five-member Wu Ming ("anonymous" in Chinese) collective. Their first, Q (2003), written by an original group of four under the now-defunct name Luther Blissett, was a historical romp through Reformation Europe seen through the eyes of a proto-radical anarchist religious cultist and his nemesis, a papal spy.
The collective name concept is all in aid of focusing the reader on the writing rather than the author. "Storytellers," they proclaim on their website, "have the right not to appear in the media. If a plumber decides not to appear, no one throws it in his face or accuses him of being a snob." They would probably refuse an invitation to any of the major writers' festivals in this country. Fair enough.
54 tracks some of the same ground as its predecessor. Here again are the multiple-named characters, the anarchist/socialist sympathies worn proudly on puffy baroque sleeves, and the unlikely intersection of historical and fictional characters.
It's 1954. The post-war world order has arrived. Stalin is dead. The "free territory" of Trieste is a Cold War pawn, with its claimants, Italy and Yugoslavia, playing only bit parts in the larger tournament. Exiled US mobster Lucky Luciano - credited with easing the Allied landing of Sicily through his mafia interests - is ruling the roost, but feeling the heat in a Naples that hosts bases for the US air force and navy. Peace talks are under way in Geneva to resolve the war in Indochina. Cary Grant is considering making a comeback to the silver screen.
The characters in 54 are legion but the central narrative ground is held by Robespierre Capponi, the Telemachian son of an Italian partisan exiled to but on the outer in Tito's Yugoslavia - which itself is on the inside and outside of the international communist family. Robespierre is having a heated affair with Angela, the wife of the Bolognese Communist Party kingpin and needs to make a change in his life. He heads to Yugoslavia to track down his father but becomes indebted to smugglers and crosses paths with drug traffickers along the way.
Also playing major roles are Steve "Cement" Zollo, a New York mafia heavy exiled to Naples with his boss, Luciano; the quintessentially Neapolitan youngster Salvatore Pagano; Cary Grant, as he takes on a secret MI6 mission to mend fences with Tito; a clan of grumpy former partisans who spend all day arguing with each other in a Bologna bar; and the McGuffin Electric, a television set whose fate and secret fortune plays a part in the lives of all the players.
In the collective spirit of the novel's composition, most characters are given a democratic kind of equal space, crisscrossing each others' lives in unlikely ways. Robespierre and his father save Grant from Russian agents on a Dalmatian beach and Pagano earns a bit part in Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief after winning a small fortune from the Vietnamese emperor, Bao Dai.
The democratisation does not stop there. Many characters have multiple identities - many voices clamouring to express their will. One of the richest and most satisfying seams mined here is the complex and often disturbed psychological continuum between Grant, his original Bristol identity, Archie Leach, his multiple screen personae, the double employed to secretly fill his shoes while he is off on the mission, and a character barely known to the world in 1954, James Bond. And in Bond we find another single name occupied by a legion of men: Sean Connery, George Lazenby, Roger Moore, Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan.
Indeed, much fun is had with references to Ian Fleming's first Bond novel, Casino Royale (another child of 1954). Grant finds himself reading the novel en route to Yugoslavia. He does not like what he reads. "Paragraph after paragraph of pointless details, depicting a lifestyle that struck Cary as brash and fake." The irony is that Grant was apparently one of Fleming's models for Bond.
The overlapping of narratives and names is so unlikely it becomes a kind of farce. It hurtles entertainingly towards an expected convergence that is part It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and part Reservoir Dogs.
Somehow, it is Robespierre, the more traditional novelistic hero, who emerges transformed from the dark borderlands that have been mapped across the narrative by the memory of the partisans who fought to build socialist states in Yugoslavia and Italy, and by the underground trade routes of drug and cigarette smugglers. While the composition of the novel is "experimental", its narrative structure and resolution are not.
Those who know their Italian cultural landscape will recognise many of the stereotypes here. From the north come the resolutely left-wing Bolognese, and from the south the bumbling, opportunistic but well-meaning Neapolitan yokel. The impression of stereotyping is fed by characterisations that are sometimes thinner than they deserve to be (Grant's traumatised inner world is the exception). The writing often seems clipped, and there is a kind of forced proletarianism in the language that I suspect may be the result of a translation that does not do justice to the nuances of the vernacular and dialect forms of the Italian original.
The danger this kind of multiple narrative risks is of falling into the trap of unlikely historical soap opera. It is saved by being told, in the best Sterne tradition, as a shaggy dog tale with its tongue firmly in its cheek.
David Sornig lectures in professional writing at Victoria University.
Pictures: the Left-wing Bolognese (left) and the Neapolitan Yokel (right).