| The Times, London (UK), May 14, 2005
Gang of five
Deep in the hills above Bologna a secretive band of writers has hatched a truly evil plot — to overthrow the world of celebrity
If you believed everything that was written about the group of Italian novelists known as Wu Ming, you would think that they were red-toothed revolutionaries. Under their former pen name — that of the former Watford and AC Milan footballer Luther Blissett — they published Q, a sprawling, bloody spy story set in the religious wars of 16th-century Europe. It became a bestseller across the Continent, though the group's non-literary activities, which according to several breathless newspaper reports included hijacking a night bus in Rome, prompted as much interest as the sales figures.
The mystery surrounding the group is deepened by their refusal to be photographed. "Dear James, we can't have a photographer running around during the interview," reads an e-mail from Roberto Bui, otherwise known as Wu Ming 1. "No photographers and no faces — those are our conditions." His promise to take me somewhere "in the hills" after our chat sounds faintly threatening. I wonder whether they might be considering kidnapping a journalist.
As it turns out, there is no need to worry. The only connection between the Roman hijackers and this Bologna-based writers' collective happened to be their choice of pseudonym. They can't explain the Luther Blissett tag, other than that it was a name used widely by artists and hackers in mid-Nineties, mostly for planting fake stories in the media. Besides, their involvement with the Blissett persona is history. The four original members — Bui, Giovanni Cattabriga, Luca Di Meo and Federico Guglielmi — discarded him at the end of 1999. Since then they have added a fifth member, Riccardo Pedrini, and assumed the name Wu Ming, which means "Anonymous" in Mandarin.
Only two of the group, Bui and Guglielmi, turn up to talk. We're meeting to discuss their latest novel, 54, which was published in Italy in 2002 and has just been translated into English. Like Q, it is a sprawling epic, although the setting is modern. With the exception of a brief prologue, the action takes place entirely in 1954.
The plot is a formidable feat of imagination that moves restlessly between Bologna, Naples, California, Moscow, Dubrovnik and Marseilles. One story traces a young Italian's quest to find his father, a former partisan who deserted Mussolini's army to fight alongside the communists and disappeared in Yugoslavia. A second follows a Neapolitan mafioso as he plots to steal the profits of a drugs deal. The most daring, though, imagines Cary Grant in retreat in Palm Springs, sick of the movies and considering retirement, but being persuaded to undertake a secret mission to Yugoslavia to talk to Marshal Tito about making a film of his life — all with the aim of buttering up the dictator and drawing him away from the Soviet Union.
Grant is not the only historical figure to appear. David Niven, Alfred Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, Tito and the head of the KGB, General Serov, all make cameos. Occasional newspaper clippings give snapshots of the world that year: the defeat of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu, the death-throes of McCarthyism, sabre-rattling by the US as it tries to protect its economic interests in South America, and civil unrest in Trieste, still occupied by the Allies nine years after the end of the war.
Drawing them all together is an expensive American television set, stolen from an army base near Naples, which passes from one fence to another, occasionally turning narrator to berate the Italians for their barbarity and lack of respect for such a fine piece of technology.
The panoramic vision of the new book and its predecessor, according to Bui, is a reflection of the way it was written — the work of five brains. Guglielmi says: "This kind of literature that has a wide scope, that uses lots of characters and moves around a lot in the world is not a very individualist literature. It's choral."
Bui says: "And a choral novel isn't going to be what you'd call a novel of family life with an intimate setting. That is another kind of novel, that has its own fans, but we're not among them. We prefer to show the whole of the complexity of life, with all its possibilities, all its characters. We're maximalists, not minimalists.”
There has been collaborative fiction before. A few years ago a group of Irish writers, including Roddy Doyle and Colm Tóibín, jointly wrote Finbar’s Hotel, a novel in the form of seven loosely connected stories. Chapters were left unsigned. The novel 54, however, is collaborative fiction in a more radical sense. "On a practical level it's not much different from normal writing and editing, except maybe the fact you do the two things simultaneously," Guglielmi says. "From a plot point of view, each person has a task — we all write a chapter or a scene and then show it to the others, who intervene, suggest changes and modify it and so on. At the end what you have is a book written by everyone, that has already been edited. It's clean. Each of us is both novelist and editor. It's as though the two professions were one."
The writers meet every three days to check that five different writing styles aren't pulling the fabric of the book apart. The process can be slow. "We take years to write a novel," Bui says. "Q took three years, 54 two and a half." It's a method that also leaves plenty of scope for "artistic differences".
For Bui the attraction of writing with other people is simple: "It's fun. We're a band — not a band of musicians, but a band of storytellers," he says. He views collaborative process as part of an ancient, oral storytelling tradition. It's a tradition that survives in large-scale projects such as Hollywood screenwriting, but is rare among novelists. "The writer is a storyteller, like the medieval minstrels, like the bards in Celtic culture — a figure that tells tales and is in touch with the people," he says. "He's not a person that lives in an ivory tower, isolated and somehow in touch with finer feelings — all that stuff is part of the Romantic myth of the author."
What about their refusal to be photographed? It must make life difficult for a group of writers whose first book sold more than a quarter of a million copies worldwide. Anonymity isn't the point, Bui says. After all, their names are posted on Wu Ming's website. It's a form of protest against our celebrity-obsessed age, he says: "The whole machinery of the writer as a star, or as a celebrity, does not interest us. We don't allow ourselves to be photographed because we believe our work is more important than our faces."
Some members of Wu Ming were in their early twenties when they started writing Q. The new novel is a more accomplished piece of work. In Q the characters often seemed dwarfed by the huge historical events going on around them. 54’s scope is no less ambitious, but has a refreshing lightness of touch. The portrait of a world-weary Cary Grant, impatiently coaching the flabby impersonator that MI6 have found as a stand-in while he travels to Yugoslavia and then racked by guilt on a visit to his ailing mother in Bristol, is utterly convincing.
The book is also filled with nods and winks that add a humour that was missing in Q. The American TV rejoices in the name of a McGuffin Electric Deluxe. McGuffin was the name Hitchcock gave to a plot device around which he generated suspense. "I read a ludicrous and revolting book written by somebody called Fleming," Grant tells his friend David Niven before recounting the plot of Casino Royale. “They'll never make a film out of that!" scoffs Niven, who, of course, will go on to play Bond 13 years later.
I ask whether they worry about hitting a false note when using real characters and if they occasionally feel limited by historical fact. "No, I don’t think so," Bui says. "You just have to get into the cracks of history. For example, we don't know very well what Cary Grant did during 1954 when he didn't work in cinema. We only know he went on holiday to Hong Kong, but for the rest of the time he led a very private life. What we did was fill up this empty space."
Those cracks have proved fertile territory. Although its members still wear their masks, Wu Ming is anonymous no longer.
54 by Wu Ming is published by William Heinemann, £16.99 (offer, £13.59)
Agnano Allied base, Naples, January 6
They’d brought him there shortly before Christmas. A present for the troops, the showpiece for the new recreation area. Then work had been suspended and he had been left there with only two armchairs, a table, the old jukebox and the picture of the president for company. Doubts and hypochondria racked his self-belief. Will I still make people laugh, keep them interested with the news, move them? McGuffin consoled himself by thinking about past glories.
Fully assembled on February 16, 1953, in the factories of McGuffin Electric, near Pittsburgh, he had been one of the first deluxe models turned out by the company. The Bainton family had bought him in an electrical goods shop in Baltimore. From his very first beginnings, McGuffin had proved to be a truly extraordinary television set. On March 5, after less than a month of life, he had delighted the master of the house with the sensational news of the death of Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, better known as Stalin. McGuffin’s last scoop had been that Moscow possessed thermonuclear bombs like the ones dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Since then, nothing. He had been switched off one evening in mid-August, and never switched back on again.
Resold for the simple fact that he didn’t match the Swedish furniture in the new sitting room, he had not moved since arriving at the military base on Christmas Eve. No one had even bothered to plug him in.
The faint light of a bicycle flashed across McGuffin’s empty screen. A young boy was cycling along slowly beneath the streetlamps, looking furtively around. This was not a normal bike: above its front wheel, on the carrier, there was a big, wide, wooden platform.
McGuffin picked up a strange electricity in the air. He felt something stirring inside. The boy. The bike. The platform. A life of flight from that dark place where everyone seemed to have forgotten him. But how could he attract the boy’s attention? The door widened with a squeak, and the boy’s face peeped in.
“Take me with you! Carry me off!” McGuffin longed to yell. But the boy appeared to need no incentive.
Edited extract from 54
© 2002 Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a., Torino. Translation © Shaun Whiteside 2005