|The Scotsman - Scotland on Sunday - 4 May 2003
Inspiring historical fiction comes right on Q
LUTHER Blissett was Watford's record league goal scorer and transferred to AC Milan for more than £1m; where, unfortunately, his career was conspicuously less successful. He returned to England to be on the coaching staff for York City FC and, as the jacket blurb tells us, "had nothing to do with the writing of this book".
His name was adopted by four Italian authors - Roberto Bui, Giovanni Cattabriga, Luca Di Meo and Federico Guglielmi - members of the "Wu Ming Foundation": a Mandarin phrase meaning "no name", which was used as a signature for dissident writings.
Part of their broadly leftist manifesto involves forgoing the celebrity status to which so many authors aspire. The name "Luther Blissett" was deployed to frustrate any attempt to turn them into "trained literary prize monkeys". This in itself is a delicious irony, because if ever there was a novel that deserved to win prizes, accolades and plaudits, it is Q.
This is a rich, inventive and immensely powerful book. Set in early 16th-century Europe, it follows a radical Anabaptist variously called Lot, Captain Gert-from-the-Well and Brother Titian, from his youthful encounters with Luther and Melanchthon, to the carnivalesque horrors of the "New Zion" at Münster, up to the Inquisition purges in Venice.
Always in the shadows along the way is Q, a Papal double-agent, manipulating events for his master, Cardinal Carafa, the future Pope Paul IV.
From Amsterdam to Istanbul, the two check and counter-check each other, one seeking an earthly Paradise, free from tyranny, the other advancing "The Plan", of perpetual dominion. In their own ways, they are ushering in an apocalypse.
Intellectually, this is dazzling; a history of the sects and doctrinal intrigues of the Reformation that is simultaneously an epic novel of espionage, betrayal and brutality; where minute details unfurl into the eddy of events. "Right up to the end you haven't a clue if you're reading a heretic or an orthodox believer," says one character, aptly describing the book in the reader's hands.
An intricate pageant of ideas and their violence would be enough to justify enthusiasm, but Q is much more than that. Among the plates is an almost unobtrusive quote from a press release by the authors against the Nato bombings in the former Yugoslavia.
Refugees, ethnic cleansing, the global appetite of capitalism, disillusioned protestors, state terrorism, millennial anxieties: twist the prism and the novel switches from the 1520s to the 1990s. At the end, one character foresees shops on every street corner selling a drink made from the quhavé (coffee) bean.
This is a story which is not only "about" the politics of the past, but is aware of itself as a political statement. Since Sir Walter Scott (another devotee of anonymity), the historical novel has been used to promote particular ideological versions of the past. The authors of Q unite this tendency to the radicalism of a Houllebecq. As they say in their manifesto: "To write is part of production. To narrate is politics."
Whether or not the Wu Ming Foundation will outlast the oodles of isms already sprouting like mushrooms is immaterial: Q is a great novel, one that tells us about ourselves and how we came to be here.