54, US hardcoverNope, they sure don't like us!

Qed. Business as usual. The Washington Post says that 54 is a disaster and our novels suck anyway. The AV Club says we badly need an editor :-) Both reviewers seem to think that our novels are nothing other than self-parodies, impassionate postmodernist jokes, tongue-in-cheek intellectual divertissements. In the US we are rarely described as "writers" or "novelists": they usually call us "intellectuals".
That's the same way The Washington Post had welcomed Q, ie as the umpteenth example of a postmodernist anti-novel.

We are perfectly aware that, once it's been written, a text does not belong to its author(s) anymore. However, we can't help but comparing European and American reviews of both Q and 54. Believe us, it's a fascinating thing to do.

Most Europeans reviewers (including some who didn't like the books) tend to think that we've made efforts to tell epic tales of social conflict and make statements about the value of folk/popular culture for everyday resistance to power. They tend to think that our novels are passionate, not cold. They're able to grasp the social and historical background, and think that our books are sincere (albeit critical) tributes to our forefathers and foremothers, ie to the lower classes of our continent. That's what readers have found in both books, and it's also the way we feel about our work. Of course there's irony, and sarcastic passages. Certainly not everything is to be taken at face value, but the tone is generally warm and there's passion. We tried to put our feelings, our fondnesses and even our family traditions into the job. And our family traditions are mostly about class war... which has long become a repressed subject in the US public discourse.

On the contrary, the majority of American reviewers find our books bleak and 100% ironic, overburdened with postmodernism and intellectual posturing. In a way, they are persuaded that we despise our readers and want to take the piss out of them ("Q has enjoyed bestseller status throughout Europe. I can only wonder if the authors are laughing"). This will sound bizarre to those who know how far we go out of our way to keep the dialogue alive in our community, through hundreds of meetings, open projects, and literary jam-sessions on the web.
Another curious thing: whereas in Italy and Europe our books are popular best-sellers, most American reviewers tend to find them very high-brow and difficult to read.

What the hell is going on here? Are those books printed on litmus paper? Do they tell us something important on the cultural differences between the two worlds? Is the Atlantic Ocean broadening farther on?
Once again: don't get us wrong. We are not complaining that American critics don't like us. This isn't about the quality of our writing: it's about the difference between the European and American perception of the nature of our books. We are intrigued by that difference, and wonder about the causes. And we're talking only about critics and professional reviewers. We don't have enough feedback from US readers to tell something meaningful about their perception of our work.
Is there some freakonomic rationale for this situation? What do y'all think? Can you give us a hint, a hand, an explanation?

Maybe it isn't that American critics don't like us: maybe they can't like us.
Maybe our books are too "provincial", crammed as they are with references to an Italian and pan-European background. Those references are easily understood in Latin America, because those peoples share many features with us, but they're missed completely in the US. Maybe. This is just a conjecture.

Anyway: with this kind of welcome, there seems to be no chance for us on the American book marketplace. We already knew that, and we expected nothing different. Pre-reviews were good (albeit some of them were slightly out of focus), but reviews are quite another thing. We already know that the novel we're writing right now, Manitouana, will be mercilessly torn apart in the US (granted that it's published at all). It's a tragic novel of anabasis and exodus, set in the 1770's on both shores of the Atlantic. It's the first episode of a triptych on the whereabouts of the American revolution... They're gonna hate our guts more than ever.

Never mind, we'll stick to Europe, the Commonwealth and Latin America :-)

Spies Not Quite Like Us

By Justin Ewers, a senior editor at U.S. News & World Report
The Washington Post, Wednesday, July 19, 2006; Page C05

By Wu Ming
Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside
Harcourt. 549 pp. $25

What do Marshal Tito, Cary Grant and the British secret intelligence service have in common? For a brief moment, nothing less than the fate of the free world lies in their hands, at least in the satirical new novel "54." The year is 1954, and Grant, with his movie career on the rocks, has been recruited by the British to persuade the communist leader of Yugoslavia to come out from behind the Iron Curtain. The stakes are high. The Soviets have exploded their first hydrogen bomb, much of Europe is wobbling between communism and democracy, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy is targeting the stars of Hollywood.

But Cary Grant and Marshal Tito? The fate of the free world? If it all sounds a little absurd, it's meant to. The book's authors, a group of five Italian intellectuals who write under the group pseudonym Wu Ming -- "no name" in Mandarin -- don't try to hide their pleasure in the plot's ludicrousness. "We are approaching you as an actor and an . . . elegant man," a faceless spymaster purrs to the well-groomed Hollywood star. Cinema, the spymaster explains, is the key to the hearts of Westerners. The mission, should Grant choose to accept it, is simple: He will sneak into Yugoslavia, meet Tito, then star in a sympathetic biopic. Once the menacing communist sees that moviegoing audiences like him, he'll be more inclined to turn toward the West, and an early battle in the Cold War will be won.

Nothing goes as planned, of course. And even before Grant sets off on his secret mission, the story dives into a bewildering thicket of twists and subplots. There is Robespierre Capponi, an Italian dandy living in Bologna, who heads off in search of his long-lost father, missing in Yugoslavia. His brother, Nicola, owns a bar full of grouchy old communists who spend their days arguing about cycling, soccer and the atom bomb. Anti-fascist poets in Trieste and hatchet-faced Mafiosi in Naples bump into the likes of Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock. David Niven makes a cameo. Oh, and the newly formed KGB comes along for the ride, trying to put a stop to the whole charade. All of these threads come together, miraculously, in the end.

Even so, "54" never manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Four of the book's five authors, under the pseudonym Luther Blissett, also wrote the novel "Q," a historical romp through the Protestant Reformation that was often overwhelmed by obscure references and wooden dialogue. In "54," they suffer from the same problems. The book's idiosyncrasies often have the feel of inside jokes missed. One of its starring roles, after all, goes to a television with its own internal monologue. "He felt something stirring inside," the TV thinks to itself at one point, "even though he was not plugged in." Readers can be forgiven for not laughing out loud.

The plot, in all of its complexity, occasionally feels aimless, and the translation from the Italian is littered with hackneyed phrases. Take this far-from-steamy reunion of two lovers: "He kissed her and stroked her hair, and they exchanged a long kiss, almost like one in a film." The authors seem unwilling to let any semblance of irony go unmentioned. When Tito and Grant meet, the occasion is swamped with commentary. "Tito and Cary Grant converse amicably," the authors write. "Can you imagine a more surreal scene?" Same goes when Grant is being offered the job by the British. The soon-to-be spy can't help but interrupt a discussion of world politics with the most cliched of espionage-thriller phrases. "Erm, gentlemen, this is all very interesting," Grant says, "but the obvious question is, 'Where do I come in?' "

Still, "54" has its funny moments. The book is cheerful about the untidiness of postwar Italy. The trains don't run on time, the cops have all been paid off, and certain movie stars' coats tend to disappear in coffee shops at the most inopportune times. This, though, is what makes life amusing. "Italy is a boot, we've tried to polish it," as one underworld character puts it, "but the place for a boot is always in the mud."

In the end, it becomes clear that the joke, ultimately, is on the book's characters. "Life isn't like it is in the films," one woman muses sorrowfully, "you don't bump into Cary Grant on the train, he doesn't fall in love with you and take you to America." Except, of course, in "54," Cary Grant really is just around the next corner, preparing his hair, looking suave as can be -- and trying his darnedest to save the world from disaster. If only he had been able to save this novel from the same fate.


The AV Club:
Reviewed by Tasha Robinson
July 12th, 2006

Keeping up with Wu Ming's novel 54 is like trying to follow a lively conversation in a packed room, with good reason: "Wu Ming" ("no name" in Mandarin) is a pseudonym for a collective of Italian authors, and their profusion of styles, characters, and tones suggest that they were competing rather than collaborating during the writing process. Just learning the book's rhythms enough to follow it through its many shifts is exhausting. It's a book for multitaskers and ADD sufferers.

Ultimately, 54 breaks down into a few major plot streams, mostly taking place in 1954. The most improbable involves Cary Grant being courted by British intelligence for a secret mission to visit Yugoslavia's Marshal Tito. Another centers on Mafia don "Lucky" Luciano and his lieutenant/executioner Stefano Zollo, who's secretly skimming from Luciano's drug trade and hoping to retire on the proceeds. And the most prominent revolves around young Italian layabout Pierre Capponi, famed for his dancing and not much else. But each of these stories breaks out into a staggering flurry of ancillary-character chapters. Pierre is sleeping with a woman who's obsessed with the fate of her institutionalized brother. Pierre's dancing buddies have their own lives and problems. His war-scarred brother runs a bar where a group of cantankerous locals regularly argue politics and football. And his father is an exile in Yugoslavia, where he deserted his Italian unit to join local rebels a decade earlier. All these characters and many more get their own POV chapters and their own detailed agendas; a few sequences are even written from the perspective of an American TV set, tellingly named "McGuffin."

Some of these threads are highly compelling; in particular, Cary Grant's story is entertaining and nuanced, as he obsesses over his personal style, struggles with his inner Archibald Leach, and lives out a spy story with pointed references to Ian Fleming. But much of the random character business is irrelevant and distracting, with the cumulative effect of watering down the joy that hits whenever two seemingly unconnected stories cohere. In interviews, "Wu Ming" has encouraged readers to embrace the book's simultaneous delving into political philosophy, genre-novel pulp, and broad self-parody, but any one of these directions probably would have been enough for a single book. The authorial collective added a fifth member since its last novel, Q (written as "Luther Blissett"); for its next project, a sixth member—a discerning editor—might be a good idea.

A.V. Club Rating: C+