January 2004 Jost

Review Essay:

Luther Blissett, Q, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: William Heinemann, 2003)


Beginning in the mid-1990s, a group of conceptual artists pulled a series of sophisticated stunts and pranks across Italy, creating fictional news stories and inventing from whole cloth an English cyclist, Harry Kipper, who supposedly was cycling across northern Italy spelling the word “ART.”[1] The persons behind these pranks identified themselves only as “Luther Blissett” and furthermore made it known that the name was available to any artist who wished to use it. Artists and musicians heeded the call, and Luther Blissetts sprang up all over Europe.

In 1999, the original Luther Blissetts (there are four of them, and they live in Bologna) wrote a novel that has sold over 200,000 copies in Italy alone and tens of thousands more across Europe; it has also recently made the list of ten finalists for a prestigious literature prize from The Guardian, one of the United Kingdom’s leading newspapers.[2] The mysterious pseudonym and the novel’s fast-paced account of the eventful first half of the sixteenth century made it a phenomenal success, in Italy and then across Europe (it has been translated into ten languages). Entitled Q, the novel will be published in the U.S. by Harcourt Brace in the spring of 2004. While “Luther Blissett” is still up for grabs for budding conceptual artists, its originators have moved on; they are now known as Wu Ming (“no name” in Chinese) 1, Wu Ming 2, Wu Ming 3 and Wu Ming 4. This is presumably a relief to the real Luther Blissett, a black English soccer player who combated fan racism during a stint playing for A.C. Milan during the 1980s, and who, as the back flap of Q’s British edition attests, “had nothing to do with the writing of this book.”

Art imitates life in Q: set in the thick of the Peasant’s War and Radical Reformation of the sixteenth century, it is a novel about a man who is constantly changing his name, and his nemesis, who is known for the great majority of the novel only as “Q.” It is narrated by the two men, who are on opposite poles of the century’s conflicts. The main narrator is a disillusioned student of Luther who casts his lot with a group of eschatologically violent peasant revolutionaries; Q is a skillful papal spy who attempts to undermine all opposition to the interests of the Holy See.

This correspondence between multiple authors and a main character with multiple names is far from an accident. In a “Declaration of Intents” published in 2000, the Wu Mings identify the social and communal as vital both to the production and content of their art, which they place in absolute opposition to that of the bourgeois “author” who writes fiction about the “Great Man” and the “monadic individual.” Rather, they are interested in “social cooperation both in the form and the substance of immaterial production: the power of collectivity is simultaneously the content and the expression of our stories.”[3] The Wu Mings largely succeed; though Q is the story of an unnamed individual, it reads like a story of the entire Reformation.

The novel begins with a short introduction from the narrator, giving the place and date of “Out of Europe, 1555.” The narrator is reading a notebook, later revealed to be the diary of his adversary Q, and vowing to himself to preserve his memories in written form. Q’s authors may be tipping their pens to Umberto Eco, whose The Name of the Rose, certainly the high water mark of the Italian historical novel, also begins with the contemplation of a unique manuscript. (The Wu Mings may not be paying homage to Eco on purpose; when the novel was first released, there were rumors that Eco was the true author, to which Wu Ming 1’s response, as quoted on their Web site, was “We’ve never met the old wanker.”[4])

After the “Out of Europe” invocation, the story begins at the chronological beginning. We see the narrator leaving Wittenberg in 1522, in search of Thomas Mntzer, whose radical and economically oriented preaching he prefers to Lutheran incrementalism. He witnesses the peasants’ defeat at Frankenhausen in 1525, and barely escapes capture and execution. He lays low for a while, before becoming a lieutenant among the Mnster rebels, collecting arms and proselytes to defend the city from the besieging bishop in 1535. Again, he sees the rebellion crushed and barely manages to escape. In 1538 the narrator winds up in Antwerp where he falls in with a group of radicals, led by Eloy Pruystick, who share property in common and practice free love. There, he becomes part of a massive and lucrative fraud, plotting to bring nascent European capitalism to its knees by forging letters of credit on the Fuggers. When the authorities finally catch on, he moves to Venice, opens a brothel and invests his money in a press for banned theological tracts, operated jointly with a family of cultured Sephardic Jews. The Inquisition remains on his trail, however, and eventually the narrator realizes that Christendom has become too dangerous for him. The novel ends with the narrator in Istanbul, plotting his next move.

Q, whose letters and diary entries are interpolated throughout the novel, is always in the narrator’s shadow. He anonymously sends false intelligence to Mntzer, tricking him into making crucial miscalculations at Frankenhausen. He infiltrates the leadership at Mnster, informing the besiegers how to exploit weaknesses in the city’s fortifications. He uncovers the narrator’s bank fraud and has his accomplices burned at the stake. Meanwhile, the narrator begins to realize that he is being hunted across Europe; when they finally meet in 1551, Q is old, expects to be assassinated by his former spymaster at any moment and improbably joins his nemesis for one final caper: exposing the pope’s interest in a banned book in order to force his hand against the church’s conservative wing. Like nearly all of the narrator’s plots, it ends in failure, with everyone but the narrator getting killed in action.

The story is an ingenious mixture of fact and fiction. In its final chapters, the narrator recognizes Q as Heinrich Gresbeck, who had been a lieutenant during the short Anabaptist reign at Mnster. The indispensable Mennonite Encyclopedia reveals that Gresbeck was a historical person; a cabinetmaker and mercenary by trade, he fled the city while on guard duty in the summer of 1535 and provided the besieging Catholic army with crucial intelligence about the city’s fortifications.[5] The historical record is of course silent on whether Gresbeck was in fact a spy who spent his life in the service of the aggressive counter-reformer and spymaster Giovanni Pietro Carafa, as Q suggests.

The narrator’s name changes allow him to be reincarnated throughout the novel as at least three genuine Anabaptist figures: after fleeing the aftermath of Thomas Mntzer’s defeat in the Peasant’s War of 1525, the narrator assumes the name of Lienhard Jost, who was a follower of Melchior Hoffman and a self-avowed prophet. Gerrit Boekbinder, whose name he uses during his time in Mnster, was a companion of Jan Matthys, one of the leaders of the Anabaptist revolt in that city. While operating a Venetian luxury brothel in the 1540s, he assumes the name of the Belgian Anabaptist Eloy Pruystick, who was burned at the stake in 1544, and who also appears in the novel as a tobacco-smoking proto-hippie. When not incarnating their narrator in a historical person, the authors choose cleverly suggestive names for him: after killing for the first time (but not the last) during his 1525 escape from Frankenhausen, he christens himself “Gustav Metzger” (Ger. “butcher,” also the name of a twentieth-century German performance artist and painter).[6] Two years later he becomes Lucas Niemanson (Ger. “son of no one”). In later years he becomes Lot (because he “didn’t turn back” when fleeing Mnster); and, on the novel’s penultimate page, in exile in the Ottoman Empire and living off Fugger gold, he is christened Ishmael-the-Traveller-of-the-World, symbolizing both Melville’s wanderer and the disinherited Biblical figure.[7]

Collaboration is not an artistic method famed for producing brilliant novels, but the Wu Mings are effective storytellers. The novel is written in short, self-contained chapters (many chapters are no more than two or three pages long), with fictional letters and genuine contemporary documents interspersed. Each chapter or letter is given a place and a date, allowing the reader to easily place events within a rough timeline, despite numerous flashbacks and the tendency, by the end, of one peasant massacre to blend into another. Reading an English translation, I would be hesitant to try to pick apart the various Wu Mings’ authorial voices like a Biblical scholar minding his or her E’s and J’s, but some stylistic variation is clearly evident. One or more of the Wu Mings clearly favor interior monologues written in choppy, one-sentence paragraphs, while another specializes in lengthy expositional dialogues that introduce the reader to the basics of sixteenth-century banking, Lutheran theology or, time after time, a Marxist analysis of Holy Roman Imperial economics. It may be that yet another Wu Ming handles the magniloquent Erasmian bowings and scrapings that the mysterious Q uses when corresponding with his overlord, Giovanni Pietro Carafa (“On more than one occasion Your Eminence has been so good as to grant us the honour of lending our services to the affairs that you have conducted” etc.)[8] The use of two narrators, the primary narrator and Q, solves some of the problems of stylistic consistency that a four-author rotation could generate, and the long chronological sweep of the novel takes care of the rest. The narrator is of the classic unreliable variety, acknowledging in an entry for New Year’s 1527 that his “memories merge and tremble,” before recounting the events of the peasant revolt in Grnbach two years earlier.[9] The frightened and idealistic student who barely escapes from the 1525 massacre at Frankenhausen becomes a battle-hardened commander and brigand in and around Mnster in 1534, and then an aged but urbane Venetian businessman in the 1540s. The narrative style alternates between lengthy, discursive flashbacks (most of the Mnster material, for example, is narrated four years after the fact), and short action-packed vignettes, usually of a violent nature.

The novel is advertised as a “thriller,” but it lacks the fast pacing and tightly constructed plot of that genre’s most successful productions. Because we can see from the perspective of both the narrator and Q, their eventual meeting, where the narrator learns what we already know, has a tinge of anti-climax. As a panoramic view of sixteenth-century Europe, however, Q is a success. The narrator moves across Europe and up and down the social ladder, introducing the reader to a diverse cast of real-life reformers and counter-reformers, as well as equally entertaining authorial inventions.

The printing press stands in the background of most of Q’s events. In Nurenburg in 1524, the narrator earns Hans Hut’s approval by suggesting that printing pamphlets, in addition to books, will win converts to the Anabaptist cause.[10] Distributing The Benefit of Christ Crucified, a Catholic book sympathetic to Lutheran theology, is the narrator’s main activity in Venice. For him, the printing press is “that stupefying piece of technology which, like a dry and windy forest fire, is spreading by day, giving us plenty of ideas for ways of sending messages and incitements further and faster to reach the brethren, who have sprung up like mushrooms in every corner of the country.”[11] The Wu Mings clearly see Q as continuing this tradition. Analogies between the sixteenth-century European Reformation and the late twentieth-century Information Revolution have indeed become a commonplace of public discourse.[12] Just as the printing press fatally undermined the hegemony of the Catholic Church, the argument runs, so the Internet and its related technologies will bring about the end of Western society as we now know it. In this sense, Q is a timely novel, and its authors are interested in drawing the connections fully. The novel includes an appendix of woodcuts, title pages, engravings and maps from the Reformation. Beneath a map of the Holy Roman Empire, the Wu Mings quote from a press communiqu they issued in 1999 in opposition to the NATO bombing of Yugoslavia, making explicit the connections they see between the sixteenth century and today: “[war] is deeply rooted in the criminal economic and political choices made by states and multinational powers, whether they are the United States or the empire of Charles V.”[13] The Wu Mings are not interested in the past merely as an intellectual exercise, but rather as an illustration of political and economic truths that they consider equally relevant to the present day.

Indeed, the novel is relentlessly Marxist. The authors appear skeptical of the proposition that actual religious faith, rather than Imperial realpolitik or class struggle, could have had any role in the Reformation at all. The massacres of the Peasant’s War cause the narrator to lose his belief in God before a tenth of the book has been narrated: “Not a word can persuade me. Not after the slaughter of those unarmed people.”[14] At every stage, characters’ motives are broken down in clear economic terms: rulers want to collect tribute, Rome wants to keep Charles V from becoming too powerful and the common people want a larger slice of the pie. Luther is a puppet of the German princes, and his Anabaptist counterparts are either Che Guevaran class warriors or charlatans, and sometimes both. They also tend to sound at times like young, poorly translated Lenins:

But there is also a popular discontent that has spread through the countryside and everywhere else. An instinctive and almost innate aversion to the excessive power of the clergy, the result of the pitiful conditions in which the people are kept. Our task-and it is a difficult one-will be to bridge the gap between the spirit of plebian evangelism and cultivated dissent and cultured dissent.[15]

Indeed, Stuart Home (another conceptual artist who has used the name Luther Blissett in the past), argues in an online article for Metamute Magazine that Q should be read as a straight-up allegory, with The Benefit of Christ Crucified standing for Q, as well as “Marx’s Capital for Calvin’s Institutes, communism for justification by faith, democracy for Catholic doctrine, pundits and politicians for cardinals and doctors of the Church, the war on terrorism and the war on drugs for the Inquisition.”[16] He also argues that the anti-climaxes and pedantic dialogue of Q should be read as archly postmodern parody of the thriller genre, but perhaps the Wu Mings should not be given that much credit.

The novel’s appeal to Italian and European readers is thus manifold; told with the simple directness of a beach-chair thriller, Q has plenty of in-jokes for the denizens of the conceptual avant-garde as well as obvious talking points for members of the New Left. The playful pseudoanonymity of its authors also created publicity that led to the novel’s commercial success.

Whether Q is relevant to modern Anabaptists, on the other hand, is another question. It mostly concerns itself with branches of Anabaptism that either withered or were brutally pruned in the sixteenth century; ancestors of contemporary Anabaptism such as Michael Sattler, George Blaurock and Felix Manz are omitted. Nor does the narrator ever cross paths with Menno Simons, though they both found themselves in hiding in the Netherlands in the 1530s and 1540s. The Anabaptists who emphasized pacifism and personal morality are nowhere to be found in Q; instead, the narrator and his co-religionists drink heavily, curse like proverbial sailors and are frequent brothel patrons (and sometimes owners). The novel’s many explicit sex scenes presumably allow the narrators to adhere to the formulaic requirements of the fat historical thriller genre while putting a finger in the eye of some postulated early-bourgeois morality, killing two birds with one stone.

The Wu Mings’ selective storytelling, salty language and purple prose may rankle with the modern Anabaptist reader’s sensibilities, but the novel has a more serious limitation; it essentially declines to engage with the theological, rather than political and economic, issues of sixteenth-century Europe. Q shows the narrator fighting Italian customs officials and inquisitors in order to distribute The Benefit of Christ Crucified, but it never makes clear just why so many Italians are eager to risk their lives in order to read it. Likewise, the reader learns of churches filled with eager auditors, keen to receive new ideas about ecclesiology and salvation, but there is never any indication that those ideas have any content beyond their economic and political implications. The Wu Mings are doubtless essentially correct in identifying the economic motives of the German princes who supported Luther and the peasants who revolted against those princes in the 1525 Peasant’s War; I do not wish to minimize the role of economics in the Reformation, or the importance of social justice to Anabaptist history and contemporary witness. But Q’s reductive, Marxist view of history is in the end inimical to the ideas about God’s role in human community that were fundamental to the radical reformers and their religious descendants. According to The Guardian, the Wu Mings produced Q and related Luther Blisset projects on a five-year timeline, “inspired by Stalin’s first five-year plan to collectivise the Soviet economy.”[17] The twentieth-century Mennonites who were in the Soviet Union during this first five-year plan probably would not be amused by this allusion.

There are many levels on which Q succeeds; it works as a clever literary prank and a readable thriller, and as a richly textured and well-researched historical fiction. The Wu Mings engage with the events of the sixteenth century using a set of ideas from the twentieth century; with regard to the ideas of the sixteenth century itself, however, they are on rather shakier ground.



Prof. Neal Blough, 13 rue du Val d’Osne, 94410 Saint Maurice, France. E-mail: nrblough@wanadoo.fr

Prof. Tom Finger, 803 Monroe St., Apt. 2, Evanston, IL 60202. E-mail: fingert@sisna.com

Jacob Jost, St. John’s College, Oxford, OX1 3JP, United Kingdom. E-mail: jacob.jost@sjc.ox.ac.uk

Prof. William Klassen, Unit #12, 545 Laurelwood Drive, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, N2V 2R4. E-mail: wklassen@retirees.uwaterloo.ca

Prof. Urs Leu, Zentralbibliothek Zrich, Zhringerplatz 6-CH 8001. E-mail: uleu@rzu-mailhost.unizh.ch

Steven Siebert, 71 Mt. Hope Blvd., Hastings-on-Hudson, NY 10706. E-mail: ssiebert@notabene.com

[*]Jacob Jost is currently a Marshall Scholar studying English Language and Literature at St. John’s College, Oxford.
1. McLean, Craig. 2003. It’s A Funny Old Game [online]. Bologna: Wu Ming Foundation [cited November 14, 2003]. Available on the World Wide Web at http://www.wuming-foundation.com/italiano/rassegna/word_magazine_q.html.
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[2]. Arie, Sophie and John Ezard. 2003. From Watford striker to top novelist – but only the name’s the same [online]. Manchester: Guardian Unlimited 2003 [cited November 14, 2003]. Available on the World Wide Web at http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story /0,3604,1030521,00.html.
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[3]. Wu Ming. 2003. Outdated “Declaration of Intents”- January 2000 [online]. Bologna: Wu Ming Foundation [cited November 14, 2003]. Available on the World Wide Web at http://www.wumingfoundation.com/english/declaration.html.
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[4]. McLean 2003.
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[5]. Christian Neff, “Gresbeck, Heinrich,” ME 2: 578.
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[6]. Luther Blissett, Q, trans. Shaun Whiteside (London: William Heinemann, 2003), 28.
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[7]. Ibid., 153, 634.
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[8]. Ibid., 387.
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[9]. Ibid., 89.
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[10]. Ibid., 84.
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[11]. Ibid., 82.
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[12]. e.g. “Since Gutenberg’s printing press, new technologies for creating, copying and distributing information have eroded the power of the people, or industries, in control of various media.”-Steve Lohr, “Whatever Will Be Will Be Free on the Internet,” The New York Times, Sept. 14, 2003, sec. 4 p. 1.
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[13]. Blissett, unpaginated end material.
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[14]. Ibid., 65.
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[15]. Ibid., 559.
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[16]. Stuart Home, “The Return of Proletarian Postmodernism II: Luther Blissett’s Bestseller, ‘Q’,” Mute Magazine, 2003. [cited November 14, 2003]. Available on the World Wide Web at http://www.metamute.com/look/article.tpl’IdLanguage=1&IdPublication=1 &NrIssue=24&NrSection=5&NrArticle=846&ST_max=0. Later on in this article, however, Home makes the following points about textual echoes within the novel pointing to its possible influences: “Likewise, phrases from many very diverse sources have been collaged into this anti-novel: ‘let the dead bury their dead . . .’ on page 160 returns us to Marx; while the verbal formulation ‘hath exalted those of low degree’ on page 109 is lifted from A Fiery Flying Roll by the seventeenth-century English ranter Abiezer Coppe.” Either Home is astonishingly illiterate, Biblically speaking, or his review is a parody.
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[17]. Arie and Ezard, 2003.
The Mennonite Quarterly Review
Review Essay: Blissett, Q
MQR 78 (Jan. 2004)