Omnia sunt communia. Q by Luther Blissett - a review.
by Robert Looby, October, 2004
Nearly five hundred years before the Russian serfs were emancipated, Wat Tyler demanded that “no man should be a serf, nor do homage or any manner of service to any lord” and that no one should serve any man but at his own will. Later on, but still before the Reformation, the Czech Taborites sought to abolish power and all institutions, including Church and State. Revolutionary thinking in Europe was not unique to the Enlightenment and the centuries since.
A spy thriller and a bawdy, action-packed picaresque, Q is the story of what we would now call an activist, if not an anarchist, told against the background of Reformation Europe. Anyone who has been involved in social or political protest will warm to the urgency of the descriptions of the activists’ preparations and attempts to mobilise the public. There is talk of printing presses and distribution of flyers and also cool, pragmatic debate about tactics, while people grumble that “the cops never change.” Indeed, anyone who has stood on a rainy street, flyer in hand, trying to interest the public in their cause will probably be envious of the successes of the narrator and his companions.
Similarly, Ursula’s “spectacles” in Strasbourg (part 2, chapter 14) will be familiar with readers of Indymedia (anti-war protests in Ireland have featured people dressed in the orange overalls of Camp X-Ray prisoners being menaced by others dressed as soldiers). Also in Strasbourg the activists build a brick wall in front of the pulpit in the church: what might now be called a “direct action.” In part 2, chapter 15 the narrator complains that the powers that be (Capito and Bucer) are drawing distinctions between “peaceful” and “seditious” Baptists. The debate about the establishment’s division of protestors into “good” and “bad” is very much alive today. For a historical novel, Q is ferociously modern, but only if you are under the illusion that radicalism is a recent phenomenon.
The narrator’s guiding light is Thomas Müntzer, a leader in the Peasants’ War who preached “a sort of anarchical individualism” (Grant). A perhaps more conservative historian, G. R. Elton, describes him as a “demonic genius” and “in his preaching of violence a dangerous lunatic.” But the Müntzer of Q is an unmistakeably sympathetic character with his faith in ordinary people’s ability to think for themselves and draw their own conclusions from the Bible without the mediation of the Church. “We were free and equal in the name of God,” the narrator exults while travelling Germany spreading the news. For all the talk of Luther and the Pope, Q is more about personal freedom than religious freedom. The narrator grows disillusioned with Luther, who abandoned the peasants to their disproportionately bloody fate in the Peasants’ War, and as he grows older (the novel spans 30 years) begins to use Lutherans (“useful, albeit undesirable, allies”) in power plays against the establishment. It is a feature of this activist that he is prepared to use all kinds of tactics to achieve his goals and is not hampered by scruples about participating in the power system he is seeking to bring down.
When peasant leader Wat Tyler met King Richard in 1381 he took him by the hand, called him his brother and “rinsed his mouth in a very rude and disgusting fashion before the king.” The rudeness is significant, symbolising a levelling of relations, and is a feature of Q as well. After the more sedate environs of, say, John Banville’s Kepler, the language of this novel is bracing, to say the least and by no means a projection of our vulgar present into the past: Elton writes that the real Müntzer’s attacks on Luther were foulmouthed but that Luther in turn was well able for it: “his own writing was often earthy and coarse”. Q makes some attempts at archaic vocabulary (“the smell of the humours”) but they remain half-hearted by comparison with the blasts of obscenities. Frederick the Elector’s good old fashioned “Silence!” is outgunned by his own “And quite right too: you’ve fucked up mightily”.
There is a healthy strain of carnival in the book (Rabelais, author of Pantagruel and Gargantua, was solidly of the age). The activists seek to turn the social order upside down, drawing their members not just from humble workers, but from the ranks of pimps and bandits too, and sending their biggest, dumbest member to the Diet with the bishop of Münster. Again, this is not necessarily a projection of modern egalitarianism into the distant past. Jan Bockelson of the Münster Anabaptists really was a tailor and Jan Matthys was a baker. And as for vulgarity: a few illustrations from the 1500s at the end of the book should put paid to ideas of more decorous times.
Q as a whole is a sophisticated and intricate book of political intrigue, but this sophistication is not always matched by the style. It is at times staccato:
“The girl doesn’t take her eyes of my face.
Blue eyes. Blond curls dripping with rain.
The lofty indifference of a fairy.
The instinct to crush her. To kill.
My heart beating like a drum.
They pass on.”
“Dawn. Pewter sky. Thoughts creep beneath sleep and pull away the covers.
Kathleen is asleep, an unbelievable spectacle of hair and mouth and warm breath.
Get up quietly lest I wake her.”
Descriptions often leave out verbs, reading more like stage directions: “A table hooked to the front wall, two chairs at the sides, a bench nailed to the floor”.
Dialogue can be admirably efficient: “They own a printing press. I’ve done a deal with them so that I can make use of it. I’ve promised them that they won’t have problems with the censors, we’ll have to be careful.” But sometimes it is too efficient: “My name’s Matthys, Jan Matthys, a baker from Haarlem”.
But the energy of the novel carries you over such faults (if indeed they are faults) and it is not all written in the same style. A fight in part three is described in full, correct sentences (elsewhere there is a tendency to drop verbs in descriptions of fights in a not unsuccessful attempt to convey the confusion and speed of the action). There are also more leisurely disquisitions, including that in part 3, chapter 16: “In this land that isn’t a land colours are forever assaulting the eye” as well as stirring speeches like Jan Matthys’s in Münster: “I am not the captain of this war. Not this mouth, these passion-ravaged bones. No. It is the Lord your God. The one they have always forced you to worship in churches, on altars, prone before statues”.
Of course it is not beyond the wit of a writer to vary his style throughout a 630 page novel, but it might be interesting to bear in mind that “Luther Blissett” is a flag of convenience or “multi-use pseudonym” for activists all over Europe. Q, though far from polyphony, seems to have been written by four people based in Bologna. Whoever wrote the book, he, she or they succeeded in producing a wild, exhilarating account of a turbulent age.
Yves-Marie Bercé, trans. Joseph Bergin, Revolt and Revolution in Early Modern Europe: An Essay on the Political History of Violence.
G. R. Elton, Reformation Europe 1517-1559.
V. H. Galbraith, "The Anonimalle Chronicle", in A. R. Myers, ed., English Historical Documents, vol IV, 1327-1485.
A.J. Grant, A History of Europe From 1494 to 1610.