The Guardian, Thursday August 28, 2003
From Watford striker to top novelist - but only the name's the same
Italian collective listed for book prize calls itself Luther Blissett
Sophie Arie in Rome and John Ezard
Luther Blissett, the former Watford and England footballer who became a cult figure in Italy following a disastrous season at AC Milan, may not have realised he was also destined to become a talented novelist. It took a few "relatives" from Bologna to help him find out.
They started out as a postman, a bouncer, a librarian and a social worker in the northern Italian town. Then they decided to pool their energies and write a collective novel, rolling their identities into the single pseudonym: Luther Blissett. Now they are enjoying the proceeds of the book they wrote under his name and which was yesterday named one of 10 books longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award 2003.
Roberto Bui, Federico Guglielmi, Luca Di Meo and Giovanni Cattabriga, all in their 30s, broke new literary ground in 1999 as the first "cooperative" to write a bestseller in Italy. They are four members of a group of Italian artists and leftwing activists who began using the name of the Watford football player as a "multi-use" signature.
The novel, entitled Q, has already sold more than 200,000 copies in Italy and has been translated into 10 other languages, reaching this country in English translation in May.
The good-versus-evil spy thriller, set during the Reformation in Italy and Germany, took the four men three years to write. It is meant, they say, to show "the birth of all that is rotten in modern life", showing the origins of the police state, financial capital and intelligence services - as Bui puts it, "all that is in crisis now".
The novel is named after its chief "baddie", a Vatican secret agent who goes only by his initial. The "goodie" has no name.
"We knew it was a good book. But we never thought it would be this successful," said Bui last night from Bologna. "Four heads are better than one. None of us could have written the book alone."
Bui argues that literature is the last of the arts where collective composition is still considered "weird".
"Our brainstorming sessions were fun. We didn't have any disagreements because, unlike businessmen, if there were different ideas we just kept them all. After all, we wanted to make the plot as thick and as complicated as possible."
When it came to writing up the story, the four divided the chapters randomly. The book is under "copyleft" (as opposed to copyright), meaning readers can freely make copies for non-commercial use.
At the time of Q's publication in Italy, theories abounded as to who the mystery writer could be and some suspected that Umberto Eco, another resident of Bologna, was the real "Luther Blissett".
Bui dismissed this idea: "Excuse my French, but that's bullshit," he said. "There is no similarity in the literary style. Our book lasts 30 years, not a week. I'm afraid the only reason British journalists latched on to that idea [that Eco was the real author] was because the Name of the Rose was probably the last Italian book they read." Eco also denied all involvement.
The authors say they do not know who first "stole" the footballer's name but once it became their pseudonym, it "spread like a disease".
The unwitting footballer, who rose to fame in Italy because of his spectacularly dismal season as an AC Milan striker in 1982, became the codename for art installations, militant action and random spoofs including an exhibition of "chimpanzee art".
"He was a nice Afro-Caribbean guy," they explained. "His unlucky season even turned him into a target of racist jokes. The Luther Blissett Project is kind of his revenge on stupidity."
In one incident, four "Luther Blissetts" ended up on trial in 1997 after they tried to hold a "psychogeographical" party on a Roman bus without buying any tickets.
The inclusion of Q in the Guardian award longlist was made possible by a rule change throwing the £10,000 prize open to translations of first-time authors. This gives European writers an even chance with those whose first language is English. Claire Armitstead, the Guardian's literary editor and head of the judges, said: "We've always been strong on American novels, but the inclusion on the longlist of an Italian historical thriller means that we have been able to honour the riches of European fiction."
The change means the list has six UK authors, two Australians, an American and the four from Bologna. It includes two novelists already nominated for the Booker prize, Monica Ali and DBC Pierre.
A shortlist of five books will be chosen in late October. The winner, to be announced in December, will receive £10,000 and an advertising package in the Guardian and the Observer.
The judging panel includes the novelists Blake Morrison and Sarah Waters, the scientist Steven Rose, the broadcaster Sheena McDonald and the comedian Bill Bailey, with Georgina Henry, deputy editor of the Guardian.
Last night, Luther Blissett himself said: "It's something that I've stayed clear of; you've got no control over these kinds of things.
"People were saying to me you should read it, but why? It's got nothing directly to do with me. Nobody asked my permission to use my name or anything like that. But what can I do about it? They get on with it and I observe from a distance."
Blissett might be relieved to know that his self-appointed clones collectively committed a "ritual samurai-style suicide" in December 1999, when their five-year project, inspired by Stalin's first five-year plan to collectivise the Soviet economy, came to its scheduled end. Immediately afterwards the authors of Q set up a new group.
The success of their first novel has allowed them to dump their jobs and become full-time writers. More recent novels include 54, an imaginary saga, set in 1954, about MI6's attempt to coax Cary Grant into making a film with the Yugoslav dictator Marshal Tito.
The new group goes under the collective pen name of WuMing, Chinese for "no name".