A note by Wu Ming 1:

If you read Q, you'll immediately realize that Sarah Dunant did not. Either that, or she's probably just skimmed through it, reading a few lines here and there. The fact that she describes the main character of the novel as "an Anabaptist turned mercenary" should be sufficient evidence of this, since that's one of the very few things Gert doesn't do. Moreover, she missed almost all the points and the irony, then wrote that we lack irony.
We also recognized a snotty attitude about Italians ("only the Italians can" etc...). Please note that Sarah Dunant, like many members of the British upper-middle class, has moved to Florence and allegedly writes thrillers set in Italy. We never read her books but the tone of this review and some other stuff we found on the Net authorize us to suspect they're based on the usual tiresome clichés: Italians are naive and noisy, funny but touchy, often untrustworthy etc. She probably really likes Italy, but that doesn't mean she likes Italians.
Dunant apparently tries to "psychoanalyse" us, and yet she admits she don't know a thing about our group, our books, our activities.
Anybody is free to criticise Q and all the rest of our output: we do it ourselves quite bitterly, our books are very far from being flawless and we publish all the reviews (including the very negative ones) on our website, but this is an uninformed and superficial review, with a detectable anti-popular stance to it (check the unsuccessful punch-line on football) and a sub-text of self-promotion and self-contemplation, like: "Trust me, readers: I know these Italians like the palm of my manicured hands, I'm here to expose their weak spots... and let you know that I'm attending the Guardian Hay Festival today."
Luckily enough, we belong to another world. (WM1, 01 June 2003)


The Guardian, May 31, 2003

The early Marxists
Sarah Dunant admires Luther Blissett's epic team effort of revolution and Reformation, Q

by Luther Blissett
662pp, Heinemann, £14.99

For a British public increasingly hooked on its own history, the first half of the 16th century means royal divorce and a fat king's pragmatic conversion to protestantism. On mainland Europe, however, the new faith was decidedly more apocalyptic: Luther's attack on the church spawned ever more radical sects, which spread like a theological contagion through the German states and the Netherlands. By the time the Anabaptists emerge, intent on forging God's kingdom free from clerical interference and with communal ownership and no marriage, the new heresies have become politically insurgent, their beliefs rooting in the fertile ground of poverty, illiteracy and despair to produce a kind of inchoate early Marxism.

Q opens with a young theological student studying in Wittenberg two years after Luther's denunciation. "Along the walls of the university curiosity grows like ivy; young minds craving new topics to test their milk teeth on." The first 300 pages chart the most turbulent and violent years of the Reformation, the radicalism inside cities like Frankenhausen, Munster and Mulhausen unfolding as a catalogue of bloody encounters, with ever wilder prophets leading peasant uprisings against ever more brutal suppression from German princes (who are often in league with Lutherans, by now equally intolerant of their more radical bedfellows).

Told through the increasingly war-weary voice of the student, an Anabaptist turned mercenary, the novel leaps between towns, dates and battles. The air is full of blistering debate, revolutionary preaching and the smell of smoke, both from burning icons in the churches and the pyres on which the heretics are burned. This is the world of Dürer with elements of Bosch thrown in, and though it is occasionally confusing and repetitive, the very chaos and crude violence of it mirror the madness and apocalyptic vision that must have propelled so many to their doom.

Throughout this sprawling epic are scattered letters from the eponymous anti-hero, Q, a spy reporting to his Catholic cardinal master on his attempts to infiltrate and betray the Anabaptists from within. Gradually a wider political conspiracy reveals itself, one in which the heretics are pawns in a chess game of power played out between the Papacy, the German princes and the Holy Roman empire. If the heretics are early Marxists, their real enemy is burgeoning capitalism: church and state hand in hand with commerce and banking, intent on enforcing authority and stability in the face of the call for radical reform.

While this is hardly a new reading of history, it's here that Q starts to show its contemporary hand. The novel arrives in England accompanied by a small truckload of hype; the cover declaring it to be a "thriller, novel of ideas, the cult European bestseller". "Luther Blissett", you learn, is a pseudonym for not one but four writers, a group of self-described Leftists - only the Italians can still use that word with such a fond lack of irony - from Bologna. While at one level this revelation can only increase your admiration for the book (I tried writing thrillers with another writer once, and can testify as to how tough it is to merge style and vision into a convincing single voice), at another it draws attention to their politicisation of history. There are moments, not least in the chapter where the Anabaptists learn how banking works, when it's hard not to hear the voice of "Teach Yourself Marxism" in the background.

Historical novels, of course, are fair game for political interpretation: it's as easy to see Lutheran protestantism in burgeoning capitalism as to detect the seeds of Marxism in the wilder heresies. If Q falters as a novel it is not because of any inherent bias. The problem is that at 650 pages it simply can't hold the narrative tension. And while there are early sections that are utterly compelling, towards the end, when the fighting gives way to a more traditional contest between the Papacy and the Inquisition, much of the earlier fervency and visceral power bleeds away. Its denouement, in which Q's identity is finally revealed, has that slightly sad sense of anticlimax you get from thrillers in which the journey has proved more intoxicating than the destination.

As to the authors' name: the football literati will have recognised Luther Blissett as a black English player who spent some time on the international circuit, at AC Milan. No doubt "Calvin Klein" would have been seen as siding with enemy.

· Sarah Dunant's latest novel is The Birth of Venus (Little, Brown). Sarah Dunant is at the Guardian Hay festival today. See www.hayfestival.com.

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