WU MING DISCLAIMER: We are not anarchists.
from The Daily Telegraph, Saturday, April 26, 2003 arts.telegraph.co.uk
Nicholas Blincoe praises an anarchic thriller set during the Papal inquisition
by Luther Blissett
tr by Shaun Whiteside
636pp. William Heinemann, £.14,99
Luther Blissett, the ex-Watford FC player turned coach, is not the first name one would associate with historical fiction. Yet there have been a number of football players with literary talents, including Terry Venables, who co-wrote three detective novels in the mid-1970s. And it is conceivable that Blissett's time at AC Milan in the 1980s gave him some kind of insight into the workings of modern Europe. So it is something of a disappointment to open this novel and find a short disclaimer stating that Luther Blissett had nothing to do with its writing. Luther Blissett is the pseudonym of a group of young Bologna-based writers with anarchist likings. If anyone wonders how many anarchists it takes to write a 600-page novel set against the backdrop of the Papal Inquisition and the Reformation, the answer is: four.
Blissett is said to have been surprised to discover that he has become a figurehead of European anarchism; apparently, his name was adopted by teenage fare-evaders when they were questioned by ticket inspectors. From fare-wagging to literary collaboration, the onward march of anarchism proves irresistible.
Q is set in the mid-16th century, in a Europe defined through the rivalry of the Habsburg Charles V and Francis I of France. The Roman Catholic Church is struggling to maintain its power against the ascendancy of powerful national rulers and the rise of Protestantism. The novel's two protagonists - like the four authors of Q, they have no names - are mortal enemies who track and evade each other through the margins of this Europe, in independent cities such as Antwerp, Venice and Basle. One is styled "Q"; he is a papal spy and a member of the Inquisition. The other travels under many names, hiding his identity because he is a member of the Anabaptists, a persecuted and feared radical Protestant sect.
The appearance of the Inquisition and the journey across a Europe troubled by religious wars may recall Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. But Q is a very different novel: rougher around the edges, often more energetic, more than occasionally ridiculous, but equally often engaging. There are princes and religious leaders, burnings, disembowelling and a body count in the hundreds of thousands. At times, the novel's effects recall the collage-like techniques of Mark Z Danielewski's experimental novel, House of Leaves. Q is told in fragments, through journals and letters, and the end of the book contains helpful maps and even engravings of some of the central characters.
Once, in an author's biography, I claimed that "Nicholas Blincoe" was the name of a workers' co-operative active in publishing. The joke backfired when a Croatian critic claimed that evidence for this collaboration could be found in the uneven tone of my latest novel. The co-operative named Luther Blissett is canny enough to have built unevenness into its grand design, making a chatoic work that mirrors the chaos of historical events.
It is also a political work, as much about contemporary Europe as the Reformation. The Europe of the novel only manages to govern itself through multilateral agreements and powerful institutions, notably the Church. Its tensions are contrasted with the peace and the prosperity found in the great empire ruled by Suleyman the Magnificent. Suleyman, described as an "invincible warrior and sage tyrant", has the power to guarantee perfect order. Between these examples of tyranny and chaos there is the novel itself, which is able to couple agreement and conflict, order and disorder; it is a living piece of anarchism, with all the fun and the infuriation that implies.