The Independent, 26 April 2003
A Week in Books: The mystery of Luther Blissett
By Boyd Tonkin
It sounds like a pub-quiz teaser. What connects a fabled Watford FC striker, a secretive clique of Italian subversives, and a pan-European publishing cult? The answer is "Luther Blissett": both the real name of a high-scoring West Indian-born footballer who bloomed at Vicarage Road but faded at AC Milan, and the stolen sobriquet of a Bologna-based conspiracy of cultural pranksters. Until 1999, the "Luther Blissett" collective staged a series of hoaxes and stunts at the expense of the Italian media. For all the dense thickets of ultra-left theory around their japes, "Luther" were playing the same game of trick-and-mock as Chris Morris or Ali G.
Before dissolving "Luther Blissett", a group of jesters signed off with a bang. They published, under the bemused soccer veteran's name, a bestselling historical novel of Reformation and reaction: Q. "I am not pleased," lamented the genuine Blissett, "but what can you do about it?"
Q has finally reached Britain, in Shaun Whiteside's zippy and rumbustious translation (Heinemann, £14.99). Set in Germany, the Low Countries and Venice between the 1520s and 1550s, it dramatises the bloody popular revolts that accompanied (and challenged) Luther's Reformation, and the Catholic undercover strategies that wrecked these radical movements. Imagine Umberto Eco's knack for the swashbuckling thriller-of-ideas crossed with an artful touch of the Le Carrés, and you have a fair idea of the novel's mood. In fact, La Repubblica has identified the authors as four young Bolognese activists: Federico Gugliemi, Luca di Meo, Giovanni Cattabriga and Fabrizio Belletati. But Shaun Whiteside assures me that there is (at least) a fifth man.
Amazingly, Q manages to transcend its collaborative origins. As a historical blockbuster, it boasts pace, colour, excitement and suspense to spare. The joins do show, but the collage approach suits this border-crossing panoply of voices and textures. Our hero, who takes many names, survives the ruthlessly repressed Peasants' Revolt of the 1520s, and the crazed millenarian regime that seized power in Münster. He travels to spread the egalitarian gospel of the Anabaptists in Flanders and Venice. Over three decades of adventure, bloodshed and romance, he and his seditious "band of misfits" are shadowed by a sly Roman spy. "Q" serves Cardinal Carafa: the head of the Inquisition, future Pope Paul IV, hard-line heresy-hunter, and foe of any compromise with Protestants. Our many-monikered narrator and this super-spy become entwined, just like Smiley and Karla: "two sides of the same coin".
Q works like a charm as a sordid, splendid period romp that painlessly informs its readers about the theological strife that splintered Europe (and the banking networks that re-connected it). Yet the reasons why a bunch of Bolognese stirrers shoud seize upon this theme soon grow clear. Effectively, their novel also operates as an allegory of Italian leftist politics since the Seventies. Out of the chaos of Utopian gambits and guerrilla provocations, in a murk of subterfuge, an elite plan for a "new world order" emerges.
Speaking of which, it would have shown more guts had the Q team snatched the identity of someone grander. Hey, ragazzi, how about "Silvio Berlusconi" as a truly fearless pseudonym? As for the real Luther B: he has gone back to Watford, and is organising a benefit match on 24 May to help rescue his old club's fragile finances. You can find out more from email@example.com. Maybe "Luther Blissett" should turn up to the game or send a fat donation. Anarchist collectivists or not, they can afford it now.