Radical media, politics and culture.

London Times Review of "54" [wu ming]

The Times, London (UK),
May 14, 2005

Gang of five

By James Eve

Deep in the hills above Bologna a secretive band of writers has hatched
a truly evil plot — to overthrow the world of celebrity

If you believed everything that was written about the group of Italian
novelists known as Wu Ming, you would think that they were red-toothed
revolutionaries. Under their former pen name — that of the former
Watford and AC Milan footballer Luther Blissett — they published
Q, a sprawling, bloody spy story set in the religious wars of
16th-century Europe. It became a bestseller across the Continent, though
the group's non-literary activities, which according to several breathless
newspaper reports included hijacking a night bus in Rome, prompted as
much interest as the sales figures.
The mystery surrounding the group is deepened by their refusal to be photographed.
"Dear James, we can't have a photographer running around during the
interview," reads an e-mail from Roberto Bui, otherwise known as
Wu Ming 1. "No photographers and no faces — those are our conditions."
His promise to take me somewhere "in the hills" after our chat
sounds faintly threatening. I wonder whether they might be considering
kidnapping a journalist.

As it turns out, there is no need to worry. The only connection between
the Roman hijackers and this Bologna-based writers' collective happened
to be their choice of pseudonym. They can't explain the Luther Blissett
tag, other than that it was a name used widely by artists and hackers
in mid-Nineties, mostly for planting fake stories in the media. Besides,
their involvement with the Blissett persona is history. The four original
members — Bui, Giovanni Cattabriga, Luca Di Meo and Federico Guglielmi
— discarded him at the end of 1999. Since then they have added a
fifth member, Riccardo Pedrini, and assumed the name Wu Ming, which means
"Anonymous" in Mandarin.

Only two of the group, Bui and Guglielmi, turn up to talk. We're meeting
to discuss their latest novel, 54, which was published in Italy
in 2002 and has just been translated into English. Like Q, it
is a sprawling epic, although the setting is modern. With the exception
of a brief prologue, the action takes place entirely in 1954.

The plot is a formidable feat of imagination that moves restlessly between
Bologna, Naples, California, Moscow, Dubrovnik and Marseilles. One story
traces a young Italian's quest to find his father, a former partisan who
deserted Mussolini's army to fight alongside the communists and disappeared
in Yugoslavia. A second follows a Neapolitan mafioso as he plots to steal
the profits of a drugs deal. The most daring, though, imagines Cary Grant
in retreat in Palm Springs, sick of the movies and considering retirement,
but being persuaded to undertake a secret mission to Yugoslavia to talk
to Marshal Tito about making a film of his life — all with the aim
of buttering up the dictator and drawing him away from the Soviet Union.

Grant is not the only historical figure to appear. David Niven, Alfred
Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, Tito and the head of the KGB, General Serov, all
make cameos. Occasional newspaper clippings give snapshots of the world
that year: the defeat of the French forces at Dien Bien Phu, the death-throes
of McCarthyism, sabre-rattling by the US as it tries to protect its economic
interests in South America, and civil unrest in Trieste, still occupied
by the Allies nine years after the end of the war.

Drawing them all together is an expensive American television set, stolen
from an army base near Naples, which passes from one fence to another,
occasionally turning narrator to berate the Italians for their barbarity
and lack of respect for such a fine piece of technology.

The panoramic vision of the new book and its predecessor, according to
Bui, is a reflection of the way it was written — the work of five
brains. Guglielmi says: "This kind of literature that has a wide
scope, that uses lots of characters and moves around a lot in the world
is not a very individualist literature. It's choral."

Bui says: "And a choral novel isn't going to be what you'd call a
novel of family life with an intimate setting. That is another kind of
novel, that has its own fans, but we're not among them. We prefer to show
the whole of the complexity of life, with all its possibilities, all its
characters. We're maximalists, not minimalists.”

There has been collaborative fiction before. A few years ago a group of
Irish writers, including Roddy Doyle and Colm Tóibín, jointly
wrote Finbar’s Hotel, a novel in the form of seven loosely
connected stories. Chapters were left unsigned. The novel 54,
however, is collaborative fiction in a more radical sense. "On a
practical level it's not much different from normal writing and editing,
except maybe the fact you do the two things simultaneously," Guglielmi
says. "From a plot point of view, each person has a task —
we all write a chapter or a scene and then show it to the others, who
intervene, suggest changes and modify it and so on. At the end what you
have is a book written by everyone, that has already been edited. It's
clean. Each of us is both novelist and editor. It's as though the two
professions were one."

The writers meet every three days to check that five different writing
styles aren't pulling the fabric of the book apart. The process can be
slow. "We take years to write a novel," Bui says. "Q
took three years, 54 two and a half." It's a method that
also leaves plenty of scope for "artistic differences".

For Bui the attraction of writing with other people is simple: "It's
fun. We're a band — not a band of musicians, but a band of storytellers,"
he says. He views collaborative process as part of an ancient, oral storytelling
tradition. It's a tradition that survives in large-scale projects such
as Hollywood screenwriting, but is rare among novelists. "The writer
is a storyteller, like the medieval minstrels, like the bards in Celtic
culture — a figure that tells tales and is in touch with the people,"
he says. "He's not a person that lives in an ivory tower, isolated
and somehow in touch with finer feelings — all that stuff is part
of the Romantic myth of the author."

What about their refusal to be photographed? It must make life difficult
for a group of writers whose first book sold more than a quarter of a
million copies worldwide. Anonymity isn't the point, Bui says. After all,
their names are posted on Wu Ming's website. It's a form of protest against
our celebrity-obsessed age, he says: "The whole machinery of the
writer as a star, or as a celebrity, does not interest us. We don't allow
ourselves to be photographed because we believe our work is more important
than our faces."

Some members of Wu Ming were in their early twenties when they started
writing Q. The new novel is a more accomplished piece of work.
In Q the characters often seemed dwarfed by the huge historical
events going on around them. 54’s scope is no less ambitious,
but has a refreshing lightness of touch. The portrait of a world-weary
Cary Grant, impatiently coaching the flabby impersonator that MI6 have
found as a stand-in while he travels to Yugoslavia and then racked by
guilt on a visit to his ailing mother in Bristol, is utterly convincing.

The book is also filled with nods and winks that add a humour that was
missing in Q. The American TV rejoices in the name of a McGuffin
Electric Deluxe. McGuffin was the name Hitchcock gave to a plot device
around which he generated suspense. "I read a ludicrous and revolting
book written by somebody called Fleming," Grant tells his friend
David Niven before recounting the plot of Casino Royale. “They'll
never make a film out of that!" scoffs Niven, who, of course, will
go on to play Bond 13 years later.

I ask whether they worry about hitting a false note when using real characters
and if they occasionally feel limited by historical fact. "No, I
don’t think so," Bui says. "You just have to get into
the cracks of history. For example, we don't know very well what Cary
Grant did during 1954 when he didn't work in cinema. We only know he went
on holiday to Hong Kong, but for the rest of the time he led a very private
life. What we did was fill up this empty space."

Those cracks have proved fertile territory. Although its members still
wear their masks, Wu Ming is anonymous no longer.

54 by Wu Ming is published by
William Heinemann, £16.99 (offer, £13.59)