Reviews: Wu Ming express values, desires for a better world

Nate Hawthorne reviews Wu Ming's book, Altai.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 9, 2014

Wu Ming—a pseudonym for a group of Italian authors—sometimes describe themselves as a band, just a band that makes novels instead of albums. Whatever you call it, the key bit is that these people write together and what they write is awesome. Wu Ming themselves have a fascinating history, which is so interesting it would take up too much room here to do it justice, crowding out the book, but I encourage you to check out the Wikipedia entry on them. Pay particular attention to the account of the Luther Blissett Project. Also I should mention that the group remains active in the Italian far left after many years, which means they write from a place of outrage at injustice and desire for a better world.

All of their work that has been translated into English is historical fiction. Wu Ming’s novels “Manituana,” about Native Americans who side with the British during the American war of independence, and “Q,” about peasant revolutionaries during the Protestant Reformation in Germany, are two of my all-time favorite books. I gave “Q” to my dad for Christmas a few years ago. My dad has a high school education, works in construction and is definitely not a radical. I love the guy but we don’t have a lot in common. I really wanted to have this novel in common with him so I wanted him to like it and I worried that he wouldn’t. When I asked what he thought of it he said, “Awesome book. Seriously awesome, I couldn’t put it down.” Good taste runs in the family.

I just read “Altai,” Wu Ming’s newest novel. “Altai” is also the name of a falcon used in hunting. If I knew what kind of sound those birds make when excited, and I knew how to type out that sound, I would do so now. I hope it suffices to say “hell yeah.” This is a great book. (Don’t tell my dad but “Altai”’s gonna be his birthday gift this year.)

“Altai” picks up after “Q” and the central character of “Q”—a German radical who passed through many an uprising—appears in “Altai” as well. The book’s main character is a spy for Venice who is set up to take a fall for political purposes right at the novel’s beginning and ends up working for his former enemies. I don’t want to spoil any of the plot points so let me just say that he undergoes important personal transformations and becomes embroiled in further intrigue and military expeditions.

“Altai” is a spy novel, full of gripping suspense and tension. There’s enough mystery to captivate, but it never gets confusing. And while there are militant moments, this is not a book that glorifies war—far from it. The book expresses a profound skepticism that military measures can achieve human liberation, and rightly so in my view.

The book is set largely in Constantinople, contemporary Istanbul. As Istanbul’s been the scene of vile repression and heroic protest lately, it seems to me that the publication of “Altai” in English is appropriately timed. While the earlier book, “Q,” had more scenes of ordinary people in rebellion than “Altai,” “Altai” is still concerned with issues of power and social change. If the world is a chess board, we are the front row, the pawns, and they the back row, the kings, queens, bishops, who are willing to see us suffer and die for petty rivalry and profit. Except at its edges, “Altai” doesn’t depict people in rebellion against their positions, but rather it focuses on the people in power and the terrible things they are willing to do. The sympathies of the novel, however, lie with the pawns, or with the movements that aim to kick the board off the table and begin a new game altogether.

The book is resonant with the present moment as well because of the central role that Jewish identity, anti-Semitism and struggles for a Jewish homeland play in the novel. I would describe the novel as anti-Zionist and anti-racist, which is to say, certainly not anti-Semitic. This theme is obviously relevant to the present given continuing conflicts and tensions, as well as popular rebellions, in the Middle East and the role of Israel and U.S. support for Israel in shaping that region.

I often feel unsophisticated as a reader of fiction (I read for enjoyment, not profundity), so I’m not totally sure about this, but I think the falcon, the Altai of the novel’s title and a few scenes, is a symbol. At one point in “Altai,” a character named Ismail, the revolutionary who was the main character in “Q,” argues that the methods used in a struggle shape its goals: “If you want to catch a hare, whether you hunt it with hounds or with a falcon, on foot or on horseback, it will always be a hare. Freedom, on the other hand, never remains the same; it changes according to the way you hunt. And if you train dogs to catch it for you, you may just bring back a doggy kind of freedom.” The novel’s narrator, as a spy, then former spy, then spy for another master, is not a dog. He’s a kind of falcon, with more freedom and sophistication than a hunting dog. And yet, falcons are leashed and hooded by the hunters who own them, and hunters set their agenda and take the results of the hunt. The narrator finds a limited kind of freedom and fulfilment via playing that role, but at significant cost. He tells Ismail, “Machiavelli wrote that you must keep your eye on the end, not the means.” Ismail replies, “Over the years I’ve learned that the means change the end.” Perhaps the difference between dogs and altai is not so great; if our route to freedom involves hoods and leashes, it may end up not being the freedom we wanted.

“Altai” is a rich novel and not a simplistic political fable, so I don’t want to reduce the book to a simple set of political lessons. Instead, I would like to end by talking about the importance of stories like this. As radicals, I think we need stories that express our values, both our hopes and our outrages, our desires for a better world and our rejection of this world. Wu Ming writes those kinds of stories.

Originally appeared in the Industrial Worker (September 2013)