The Times Literary Supplement, 9 May 2003:
No Logo Reformation
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
635pp. Heinemann, £. 14.99.
0 434 01000 6
"You see, Charles V and the princes are a class of parasites who produce nothing, but have a huge need to squander money: wars, courts, concubines, children, tournaments, embassies... The only way they have to pay off the debts they contract with the bankers is to grant them concessions, to allow them the usufruct of mines, factories, lands, whole regions. In this way the bankers are always getting richer and the powerful are becoming more and more dependent on their money. It's a vicious circle."
So muses the sixteenth-century Antwerp radical Eloi, near the textual and chronological heart of Q; and the thinly veiled historical parallel typifies much of what this massive, complex guerrilla novel is engaged in analysing. The product of four members of the Italian collective which appropriated the name of the footballing legend Luther Blissett, Q, which was first published in Italy in 1999, attempts a mud-spattered, paranoid reconstruction of the long aftermath of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, with ecclesiastical spies and soldiers pitted against Anabaptist subversives in various locations around the Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, the novel offers a long allegory about the alternative ideological possibilities of history - the Reformation revisited for the "No Logo" generation. The publishers have billed Q as both "thriller" and "novel of ideas"; over the book's length, however, its different generic priorities sometimes pull too far in conflicting directions.
As the novel's author notes point out, the real Luther Blissett "had nothing to do with the writing of this book" (although readers buying Q by mistake may still delight in some accidental football-related felicities, such as the European ambitions of "the Fuggers"); the authorial disclaimer, in conjunction with the note permitting electronic reproduction of the book "for non-commercial purposes", provides a paratextual framework that primes a modern reader for many of the novel's sixteenth-century concerns. After all, one of the distinctive features of the Reformation was the use of printing technology, mechanical reproduction, and the anonymous proliferation and dissemination of texts in order to promulgate ideas - a feature qhich, for the Blissett collective, finds a modern analogue in cyberspace. Aptly enough, therefore, much of Q's plot hinges on forbidden texts, and the evasion (or punitive imposition) of responsibility for them. Starting a few months after Luther has nailed the Theses to the door of Wittenberg Castle, the plot unfolds in a series of nested flashbacks, taking in letters, diaries and oral testimonies, and oscillating in perspective between two narrators of uncertain identity: a travelling Anabaptist sometimes known as "Gert from the Well", and Q, a shadowy Papal spy who tracks the progress of heresy.
The testimonies of these nameless or many-named figures offer the authors a window onto the huge, brutal conflicts as this long game of cat-and-mouse moves over the years, including the vividly imagined conflict at Münster in 1534 (as Q describes it, "this city's danse macabre catches all of us in its whirl, like a pestiferous contagion, as though the smell of the corpses were turning even the living into corpses").
Gert's early conversion to the Anabaptist cause is primarily a matter of theology, but as the novel progresses, it becomes increasingly clear, to him and the reader, that theological controversy is inextricably entwined with and conditioned by the interests of commerce, with the squabbling Church and Imperial authorities both party in the pockets of the banks. It is here that Q emerges as part of a tradition of modern historical fiction, which includes works like The Name of the Rose (to which this novel has been compared by European critics), and even more pertinently, Thomas Pynchon's Vineland and Mason and Dixon, which use their historical perspectives to uncover lost or repressed alternative ideologies from the past - as, for example, in Vineland's recurring memories of organized labour in America. Q, for its part, offers Gert's adventures as an early form of "direct action", as the Fugger Bank's credit is almost undermined by forgery; but it is action subject to violent institutional reaction, recounted in a catalogue of brutality which resembles Foucault's Pendulum rewritten by Michel Foucault. Eventually, the novel's denouement depends on a dangerous text. The Benefit of Christ Crucified, which may potentially short-circuit the hold of the bankers, and which also draws Gert and Q into a show-down - one which reveals their common enemy ("I'm the only one who knows the whole story from the beginning: Carafa can't risk keeping me in circulation").
Neither does Gert have that much to look forward to: he may escape to Instanbul, but in a sly parting joke, the seeds of globalization yet to come are ominously and ironically present in "a little bag of green beans" ("You roast them and grind them to powder, and they're ready to infuse in boiling water. They'll go crazy for it in Europe").
Much has been made in Europe of the sheer scale of Q's historical imagination, and this is undeniably impressive, but the novel is also vulnerable to some of the occupation hazards which beset all historical fiction - not least, the question of how render archaic colloqualism convincingly. George Eliot had to face this problem, not always successfully, when re-imagining Savonarola's Florence in Romola ("A bad Easter and a bad year to you, and may you die by the sword!"); Shaun Whiteside's English translation of Q, likewise, strives bravely to capture the novel's peculiar mixture of the sacred and the profane, without reducing it to an Anabaptist Mockney, but it sill comes up at times with lines of cumbersome exposition ("You mean that Mülhausen, the town that gave an example to all the cities in Thuringia, is going to stand and watch in the crucial battle for the liberation of the lands from the Bavarian Alps to Saxony?"). Gert's portion of the narrative, in particular, is also given to terse, heavily stressed, one-line paragraphs ("Yellow lights pierce the gloom of early morning. / Day of Resurrection"). In writers like James Ellroy of Chuck Palahniul, such staccato effects form part of the visceral texture; over 600 pages, Q's rhythmic punches end up aiming too predictably for the same spots. The comparison with The Name of the Rose also has its limits. Eco's novel smartly pins its theological and semiological inquiries on an old-fashioned detective plot, a quest, however delusive, for a centre and an explanation; for all its references to "a dangerous book; an imminent council; a very powerful man; the most secret servant", Q's narrative mode is primarily a centrifugal one (as befits a novel about the distribution of texts), one which follows the logic of information percolating outwards, like the moder phenomenon of Internet message-strings. As a result, the thriller plot only gets going after about 250 pages, and is so distended over the book's length that a reader may be distracted from Q's analyses on corruption by the wequivalent of a sound playing too slowly in the background.
"We plough our way through the twists and turns of history", remarks Q. "We are shadows unmentioned in the chronicles. We don't exist." Q's strength is the intensity with which it can re-imagine such "shadows", rather than its status as "historical thriller"; it may also have more in common with Watford FC's Luther Blissett than initially meets the eye. Both are most effective in the last third; but where Q is best at set pieces, when it comes to moments of sheer inspiration, the original Luther Blissett still has the edge.