Found in Translation: Q

This novel, written by the Italian authors known collectively as ‘Luther Blissett’ (now writing under the pseudonym ‘Wu Ming’) was published in 1999. Although written collectively, the novel is stylistically uniform and the writing beautifully descriptive without being florid. Most of its characters are engaging and believable. It is very well researched and the historical setting is, by and large, convincing. Q is self-consciously a ‘political novel’, and perhaps had I read it in that frame of mind, its (in all honesty, few) problems and political viewpoint would have seemed to me to be less jarring.

Paperbackq_bigThe plot could be described as darkly picaresque, following an unnamed but many-pseudonymed protagonist through the violent, post-Lutheran sixteenth century, full of religious conflict. In the presence of its elusive and mysterious title-character, it also has elements of the spy thriller.

The primary protagonist’s narrative is dramatic and vivid: he comes across as dashing, romantic and largely sympathetic. I found some of his motivations, however, of questionable believability. He is notionally an Anabaptist religious fanatic, but his character displays very little genuine religious conviction. While circulating condemned (but not theologically Anabaptist) tracts throughout Italy, becomes closely intimate with Jewish co-conspirators whose conversion is a facade. This struck me as deeply implausible for a sixteenth-century Christian. The protagonist’s mentality is that of a contemporary anarchist – that is to say, contemporary of the authors – not of a zealot who left Wittenberg University in the 1520s to fight in the Peasants’ Wars and found Heaven on Earth.

The secondary protagonist, Q, appears almost entirely in his letters for the first two-thirds of the novel. This makes him seem a powerful, menacing automaton. The revelation of his own motivations and personality at the end of the novel is thus doubly effective.

Comparison with Umberto Eco’s 2010 The Prague Cemetery is unavoidable. Both are broad in chronological scope, contain convoluted espionage, explore ambiguous personal identities, feature well-researched historical characters, and seek to portray fictional individuals as the touch-stones for historical events. Both are also Italian originally, but with excellent English translations. However, Q is a little more untidy and somehow less self-assured, as well as having a not-quite-plausible protagonist.

Q suffers, furthermore, from a severe case of ‘telling, not showing’. Events important to the psychological development of characters are rushed through tersely rather than being played out. One example is a long con run on the Fugger Bank (arguably the first multinational financial corporation), which has very important ramifications for the later novel. In two chapters, interesting and shady characters are introduced, the outlines of the plot are described, ships are loaded, banknotes forged. A brief hiatus gives the reader some historical exposition from Q. The next chapter is a letter, dated three years later, written by Anton Fugger, who has just discovered the con. Although an account of every fraudulent cargo manifest, every staged pirate attack and every forged promissory note in the intervening time would be a little tedious, the abruptness of this was something of a shock. This extends even to the deaths of important characters, and episodes in the protagonist’s life which have a profound effect on him.

Also, I feel that the novel has too much seemingly irrelevant sex in it. It does not dwell on sordid detail, but the authors do make clear that the protagonist beds a lot of women, with little apparent plot-relevance. A few reasons for this appear to me, but I’m not really satisfied by any of them. Does it serve to remind us that the sixteenth century was a less prudish time than we tend to assume? To demonstrate the virility of main character? Or to show his emotional depth, as his conquests are love affairs, not one-night-stands? No reason seems to fit, and these episodes do not quite sit easily in the novel.

Since finishing Q, I have discovered more of the ‘cultural anarchist’ political background of its authors. Perhaps had I been aware of this when I had started reading, my reactions to the novel would have been different. The meticulous historical research of the authors, however, led me to focus on its historicity rather than as an allegory of recent events or current politics, and that is the spirit in which I have relayed my experience of it; however, I would recommend researching the authors before reading Q for a more involved appreciation of the novel.

K. Finn

For more information about Wu Ming, please visit their website.

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