If there’s one thing you can depend on from the Wu Ming foundation, it’s that nothing will be quite what it seems. The Italian writing collective has a short but distinguished tradition of confounding expectations, overturning convention and coaxing readers into viewing history on the reverse-angle replay.
Their third novel, Manituana, recounts the American war of independence from the losing side -- the Six Nations of the Iroquois -- and employs all the tricks and devices familiar to readers of their previous offerings, Q (written under the name Luther Blissett) and ’54: conflicting narratives, false trails, elaborate games and back-and-forth propaganda. Seasoned throughout with a neo-marxist outlook that throws up dozens more questions than it answers, it’s an enlightening, sometimes infuriating, but always invigorating read.
An interview with Wu Ming is, similarly, far from a run-of-the-mill event. Not least because it’s conducted by email, partly as a nod to the group’s distrust of old-style media manipulation, though also because Bologna to Glasgow is a much shorter distance in cyberspace.
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Wu Ming’s ethos is tied in with the 20th-century pranksterist tradition of “art terrorism” and its suspicion of “old” media as being inherently shallow, duplicitous and obsessed with trivia. They refuse to be filmed or photographed by the media and identify themselves by number (there are currently four Wu Mings, known as Wu Ming 1, 2, 4 and 5, the number 3 shirt having been retired recently when a member left the band). Yet they are far from reclusive, travelling around the world to promote their books and diligently tending their website, wumingfoundation.com , where all their fiction can be downloaded for free.
Over the course of a fortnight Wu Ming 1 and I traded more than 4500 words on war, literature, cognitive reality, football and why you should never refer to the group as anarchists. Please note there are a few spoilers here -- no drastic giveways, but if you don’t want to know how the War of Independence turns out, or what happens to Dread Jack, look away now.
GD: Manituana is set during the American War of Independence. Why focus on this period of history?
Wu Ming 1: Because people know very little about it. When you read about that war you sight so many shadow cones, like during an eclipse of the sun. Propaganda and worn-out mythologies interpose themselves between the past and us, thus every aspect of the War of Independence reminds of a partial or total eclipse which casts a shadow cone on our present. In the shady areas of history, you just have to kick the ground to find plenty of hidden, overlooked or simply badly told stories. The official version of that revolution is bi-dimensional and tedious, but we looked for what was in the shade, for all those counter-intuitive truths and fateful decisions and good-intentioned mistakes and little known characters who played important, even crucial roles in those days and could even have changed the outcome of the war if... Here we are: we’re interested in that “if”.
GD: How do you reconcile the myths and forgotten stories with the ultimate outcome, which is often the reason why those stories have been forgotten in the first place? And how do you answer to the charge of being revisionist historians?
WM1: You’re right, the outcome is the reason why they’ve been forgotten, and that’s what triggers our curiosity. The present state of things and our very existence descend from that outcome. Had George Washington lost the war, the world would be completely different nowadays, the chain reaction of events that has led to our reality wouldn’t have taken place, which means that none of us would be here. An alternate flow of history creates an alternate butterfly effect, which creates an entirely different context in which entirely different people have entirely different children. Most likely, had George III succeeded in repressing the rebellion, our great-grandparents wouldn’t have met each other. We’re all descendants of that outcome. Being aware of this makes what-if speculation even more interesting; it is an healthy exercise. By imagining a different course of events and another time continuum, or by highlighting repressed possibilities in our own continuum, we hint at the possibility of a world without us. Our mind transcends our being-here, we get of ourselves for a while. They say it also happens when you take ketamine, but what-if speculation is much better because it doesn’t impair your cognition -- indeed, what happens is exactly the opposite.
GD: You mention the problem of propaganda distorting history. But often when you challenge propaganda, it’s through counter-propaganda, which doesn’t get you any closer to the truth. What steps do you take to avoid this trap?
WM1: We’ve never been content with simple reversals of official truths. When we wrote Q, we depicted Martin Luther as a scoundrel and Melanchthon as an arrogant bore, and yet we didn’t depict Ian of Leyden as a revolutionary hero or the radical Anabaptists as the owners of truth. We depicted all of them as tragic figures making horrible mistakes, having insane expectations, being awfully wrong about the most crucial aspects of their doctrine. Even Thomas Muntzer, an undoubtedly positive character, is naive and wrong about the outcome of the struggle: he falls in the trap and takes the peasant army to Frankenhausen, where they’re exterminated by the princes’ cavalry and the lansquenets. You see, all lines are blurred, also in Manituana. The novel can hardly be described as counter-propaganda: at a certain point Joseph Brant loses his compassion and humanity, the red jackets are far from being the good guys, the heart of the British empire is an insane place ruled by an inept and corrupt aristocracy, and so on.
GD: All your novels to date have been historical novels. What is the significance of history in your work?
WM1: I would say that what we like the most is world-building. We write a novel to re-create an era, a sphere of past everyday life, a network of lost signs and half-forgotten deeds and conflicts whose consequences keep shaping our very lives. History lets us build a world, and in that world we can play with alternate history fiction, we can criticise the misery of this world from unexpected directions, we can construct allegories of our present. However, I have to correct you. The novels that have been translated into English are all historical novels, but we also wrote science-fiction. In fact, SF is my favourite genre.
GD: Is there such a thing as historical truth, in your view?
WM1: There are things that actually happened, and then there are the interpretations of those things. For example, it is true that Benito Mussolini’s corpse was brutalised and hung from the feet by an angry mob in Milan. That’s undisputable, and some contemporary Italian leaders (I actually think of one in particular) shouldn’t forget what may happen to them. Then there are conflicting interpretations of that event: some say that it was excessive but justifiable revenge taken by a people who’d suffered the dictatorship, the war, the bombings. Some others counter that nearly all the members of the mob had been fascists. They had applauded the Duce when it was convenient to do so, then they’d opportunistically turned against him.
GD: As a reader I found the narrative structure of Manituana difficult and challenging, with its huge cast of characters, rapid scene-cutting and blurring of narrative and dialogue. I have to assume this is deliberate, though it may be stupidity or inattention on my part. What effect are you trying to achieve by doing this?
WM1: It’s funny how polarised opinions are in this respect. In Italy and other countries, some readers found Manituana very difficult, while some others dismissed it as “commercial” and compared it to Wilbur Smith’s books! I can only say that we don’t want to be trivial, it would be pointless to write predictable, tacky pulp stuff. We’re trying to balance between being complex and being popular. Some of our books are more complex than popular, some others are more popular than complex. We’re still seeking the right balance.
GD: Actually, I can see both aspects: the central plot does bear similiarites to pulp novelists like Smith, but then it’s embellished with all kinds of subplots, asides, historical digressions, supernatural elements and the like. So you can breeze through it just following the plot or let your mind wander down the various byways. And then at the end, because the basic story is actually quite simple, it all pulls together. Is that a fair summary of your approach?
WM1: That’s a fantastic description, mate! :-)
GD: Violence -- particularly, but not exclusively, war -- is another theme that recurs throughout your fiction. How would you characterise the nature and art of war?
WM1: Last year we wrote a foreword to a new Italian translation of Sun Tsu’s The Art of War. We stated that all the discourse on Sun Tsu’s The Art of War has gotten irremediably boring, and the book has been praised by company managers and marketing gurus in such an exaggerated way that it turned into an over-rated, almost useless piece of junk. Certainly it wasn’t useful to the record industry, or Lehman Brothers for that matter. War isn’t only a metaphor for something else, you make it acceptable by using it in that way too often. Sometimes, when you talk about war, you’re really talking about war.
GD: So are you using historic warfare to raise a point about modern warfare and the way it’s been sanitised and turned into an export industry? Is that why the description of the violence is so explicit? I found some of the battle scenes had an epic, Virgillian quality in the way they described every slash and thrust.
WM1: Thank you for calling our writing “Virgilian”, I’m a big fan of the Aeneid. The difference with the ancient classic epics is that we try to stress the sense of loss and waste in every single death. There’s no glory in Manituana, even heroic deeds are impregnated with sorrow, they leave a bitter taste in the characters’ (and the readers’) mouths. We tried to describe the acts of dying and giving death with utter honesty. Violent death is always disgusting. Sometimes it may be necessary (for self-defence etc.), but that doesn’t make it less disgusting. Dread Jack’s death is disgusting, even if it’s told in a farcical way. And think of the way we describe torture in Manituana.
GD: Is the physical frontier of colonial America tied to the boundary between dreams and reality?
WM1: I never looked at it from such an angle, but if you feel there’s a connection, it means that there is, whether the author was aware or not. Let’s try to go deeper then: if the “proclamation line” is the boundary between dreams and reality, it means that European settlers gradually brought … reality to dreamers. However, I think that those dreamers, the peoples living beyond the line, saw things in another way: they used to live in their reality -- which, by the way, was very material and concrete -- until one fine day hordes of pink-faced, smelly folks invaded those lands and filled them with the stuff of very bad dreams: property, puritanism, bodily repression, alienation. Again, this too is a very simplistic view, it reeks too much of “good savage” ideology, which of course is the other side of cultural imperialism. Where’s the truth, then? Is the metaphor consistent enough to be useful?
GD: The rifle and the violin are a recurring joint motif. Is this an image for the two faces of civilisation? And can the one exist without the other?
WM1: Let me tell you an interesting story: in 1960s Italy there was a bank robber called Luciano Lutring. He was nicknamed “Il solista del mitra” (the machine-gun soloist), because he used to carry his weapon in a violin casket case. He entered banks all dressed up like a perfectly fine gentleman, you know, sharp suit and tie, expensive shoes … and the casket case under his arm. He initially joined the queue, then opened the case, showed the gun to everybody and informed them -- very politely, albeit in Milanese dialect -- that he was going to rob the place. He really was a violin player, but he also was a media-savvy, gentleman criminal. He moved to France and robbed banks and jewelries there until he was arrested in Paris, in 1965. In prison he became a painter. After 12 years, the French president Georges Pompidou pardoned him. Nowadays he’s a crime novel writer, he’s even got an official website. I think we had this story in the back of our mind when we decided to create this relationship between rifle and violin.
GD: When you raised the case of Lehman Brothers, I remembered that money is another issue that comes up in your fiction. In Q it was the birth of modern banking in Bavaria; here it seems to be the relationship between money and warfare. How did you want this to work in the novel?
WM1: That’s one of the many thematic strands in the novel, though it isn’t as developed as others are. We just hinted at that here and there. It is trivial to state that war has to do with the economy, that its causes are rooted in the mode of production and so on. This time the focus of the narrative was on other things: land, culture, identity, civilisation etc.
GD: Are we likely to see a Wu Ming novel set in the present day? Iraq and the “war on terror” seem like natural terrain for you.
WM1: Manituana is our novel on Iraq and the “war on terror”. And two of our solo novels deal with the Iraqi war, albeit in an oblique, allegorical way. It’s just that we don’t want to be found where we’re most expected. Our real “natural terrain” is where few other people (or even no-one else) usually venture.
GD: The nature of language and translation come up repeatedly in Manituana; I’m thinking, for example, of the chapter in which Joseph directly influences a conversation between Tekarihoga and Guy Johnson through his translation of their words. At times the various languages almost seem to become characters in the novel -- Gaelic is described as the “language of blood and war”. What is the purpose of this?
WM1: Not that we really have that opinion of Gaelic, that’s how one of the novel’s characters feel about it, and it’s got to do with the story of his family. Anyway, it’s just that we’re in love with language, diversity and richness of expression. It isn’t by chance that we’ve got a Chinese name and, as Steve Martin once put it, “language is the ... most important ... uuuhhh ... I think you know what I’m trying to say!”
GD: While we’re on the subject of language, I notice the titles of all your novels published so far are untranslatable -- that is, they cannot be altered by translation, at least not in the western world. Is this deliberate?
WM1: Yes it is. If a novel keeps the same title in many languages, googling reviews is much easier.
GD: There are many characters that cross cultural boundaries: some of mixed blood, such as Joseph and Peter, others such as the Earl of Warwick whose consciousness extends beyond his own social environment. They often seem to be the most distinct characters. What is their role?
WM1: That’s what the novel is about. While on the surface of information one may see or predict or even promote clashes of civilisations, as if civilisations were blocks of hard matter colliding with each other, under the surface we see that every person is a colloid, a mixture of cultural substances suspended one into another.
GD: And yet in the end it’s the likes of Klug and Sullivan, who deny others a distinct identity and set out to destroy it, who prevail. Why take such a bleak view?
WM1: It’s what actually happened, we couldn’t pretend it didn’t. Our novel is not a piece of alternate reality fiction in the vein of Robert Harris’ Fatherland or Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. In Manituana, alternate reality is only potential, hypothetical, it’s little more than a dream that we have while reading. The Sullivan Expedition wiped the Iroquois out of their lands. We inserted in the novel an excerpt from George Washington’s instructions to Major Sullivan: the explicit order was to destroy all Indian settlements. The only way for the Iroquois to get some mercy, wrote Washington, would have been to deliver Joseph Brant to the new conquerors. Brant (spelled “Brandt”) is mentioned by Washington in the letter.
GD: At the same time, the tribal dividing lines are one of the main things that define the landscape of the novel -- not just within the Six Nations, but among the English, Irish, Scots and new Americans too. Does that mean there’s an intrinsic contradiction at its heart. How do you resolve that tension?
WM1: Our method doesn’t consist in resolving tension, it consists in intensifying it. We’re interested in the ongoing conflict between the many instances of individuals, communities and the whole society.
GD: A lot of the identity changes are described in terms of rebirth, which seems to echo the theme of Anabaptism in Q. Why is the idea of rebirth so fascinating to you, and what are you seeking to say with it? Is it tied in to ideas of redemption?
WM1: We’ve always been interested in vast, collective cycles, to us singular rebirths are always part of something bigger, a greater context. The multitudes can always start over on another level, we say that in the endings of all our novels. Esther says that: “There is no grieving for those capable of dreams. There is no destruction for those who understand the law of time.”
GD: What are the problems -- or challenges, if you prefer -- involved in writing a novel with four people? How do you resolve disputes? Is there a set structure and editing process? How do you ensure cohesion of style, narrative and character -- or am I wrong to suppose these are important to you?
WM1: You aren’t wrong at all, they are extremely important to us. We have no fixed method, the way we work evolves with every book, because we evolve, our lives evolve. For example, when we wrote Q none of us had children, now three of us are fathers. That doesn’t only change your perspective, it also changes your days, the way you have to organise your time etc. Of course, the most important thing is that we’ve been friends for so many years, we’ve shared so many experiences that there’s almost telepathy between us. The methods we adopt for writing together wouldn’t work for anyone else, that’s the reason it is difficult to explain them. We usually resort to two examples: collective improvisation in jazz and 1970’s “Total Football”. We’re a cross between a jazz combo and one of those old Dutch football teams.
GD: Hang on -- you’re from a country that’s won the World Cup four times and you’d rather play like the Dutch? To a Scot, that just sounds perverse!
WM1: Italy stole the 2006 World Cup. Australia deserved to win the second-round match. Grosso dived to win the penalty, Totti scored it, Italy reached the quarter-finals. I was so ashamed, I wrote to all my Australian friends and acquaintances to apologise.
GD: What do you gain from writing in a collective rather than as individual writers?
WM1: I never feel lonely. I never experience writer’s block. I get by with a little help from my friends. Is that enough?
GD: As a collectivist writer, do you advocate collective reading? Reading groups are often frowned upon by people who think of themselves as serious readers.
WM1: F*** them. I think reading groups are pretty cool.
GD: Do you ever write as an individual? And if so, are you conscious of writing differently as yourself from when you’re writing as a member of Wu Ming?
WM1: Each member of Wu Ming often writes as an individual. In fact, each one of us has also written “solo novels”, which were translated into several languages but aren’t yet available in English. Each member also writes lots of articles and essays. There’s no difference in my writing, the difference is in the editing process. While we’re writing a group novel, every bit of text written by any of us is tirelessly discussed and constantly reprocessed by the rest of the collective. It happens almost with every sentence. When I write solo stuff like my novel New Thing, the collective gets involved later, they’re kind of my copy editors. I submit them batches of chapters and they tell me what they think about them. Then it’s up to me to rewrite them or leave them as they are.
GD: Are there any plans to have your sci-fi novels translated into English? How do they differ from your historical fiction?
WM1: Unfortunately, no plans yet. It’s weird stuff. Take my novel New Thing: it’s about 1960s free jazz and John Coltrane’s last days, but among the characters you can find a tribe of telepathic lemurs from another planet. They live in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, and are very fond of western movies. They want to meet Lyndon B Johnson, defeat him in backgammon and conquer the world. Lyndon B Johnson refuses to see them, so they show what they can do with their superpowers. They cause a psychic wave, a plane crashes into Lake Monona, Michigan. Otis Redding dies. That’s part of a sub-plot unfolding in dreams, but these dreams interfere with reality. Or take Wu Ming 5’s Havana Glam: a turbulence in the time continuum creates a parallel world in whose 1970s David Bowie doesn’t have a “Berlin Period”: he has an Afro-Cuban pro-Castro period. Glam Rock takes over among the youth in Havana, there’s a new subculture nicknamed “los Marcianos”. Another sub-plot takes place in Jamaica, in the reggae scene. Or take Wu Ming 2’s Guerra agli Umani [War on the Humans], where a sci-fi novel within the novel inspires a group of ecoterrorists who want to exterminate the human species. This novel is authored by one mysterious “Emerson Krott” and its chapters are alternated with the chapters of the bigger novel bearing the same title.
GD: Who are your literary influences?
WM1: When we started writing in the mid-1990s, we were very much influenced by the latest wave of adventure novels from Latin America, eg books by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, Rolo Diez or Daniel Chavarria. The other big influence was James Ellroy. We got the idea of writing Q after reading American Tabloid. Although the guy is a right-wing nutter, he ended up giving ideas to many leftist writers, at least in Italy. Of course, we’re also influenced by several Italian authors, like Alessandro Manzoni (the grandfather of us all) and Beppe Fenoglio.
GD: Your website describes you as being from the “good side of Italy”. What is the bad side?
WM1: Are you kidding? Half of our compatriots openly support various forms of racism, xenophobia and fascism, Silvio Berlusconi is our premier, and you ask me what is the bad side?
GD: Tell me one interesting thing about yourself that has nothing to do with writing.
WM1: I can speak while burping.
GD: You have all refused requests to be photographed or disclose details of your personal lives. Why is it so important to suppress your individual identities?
WM1: We’re not suppressing them. We’re defending them.
GD: Can you explain further?
WM1: You asked me about the fact that we don’t appear in pictures or on the telly. That’s the way we defend our personal freedom and prevent images from alienating us. I can walk into a shop in my town and I’m a bloke like any other, and even if someone recognises me as Wu Ming 1, there’s no heap of images between us, no distorted or exaggerated representation mediating our relationship (or lack thereof). If someone recognises me, that’s because he or she already met me in some live event. We often appear in public, we meet the readers, discuss with them, present our books, but there are no photographs or footage of us. We don’t prevent people from taking me, we just say that we’d rather not be photographed or filmed, and people usually respect that. This preserves the “authenticity” (I know, it’s an ambiguous term but I can’t think of any other right now) of the event, and the fact that we don’t emphasise our appearance makes our everyday life a little bit easier.
GD: In the 1990s you were famous for your pranks. You’ve said elsewhere that these days “we’re working in a subtler way, injecting pranksterism into our activities in an inconspicuous ways”. So what types of prank are you playing now? And if the method has changed, does that mean the purpose has changed too?
WM1: If I drew your attention to our inconspicuous pranks, they would cease to be inconspicuous, wouldn’t they? :-) Anyway, it’s all petty, innocent stuff, we played some pranks on other writers, guys who - let’s put it this way - are a little bit too much fond of themselves. We also played minor pranks on some far-right websites and blogs.
GD: Why do you resist the popular description of yourselves as anarchists? What is a better description?
WM1: Oh, that’s definitely a British thing. At the beginning it baffled us a bit, but then we realised that in current British English “anarchist” doesn’t always mean, er, “anarchist”. Sometimes the term is just used for lack of better words. Anyway, the question is very simple. None of us ever belonged to any anarchist group, network or organisation. None of us comes from any anarchist milieux. None of the people we hang out with can be described as an anarchist. Our common background is manifold and variegated, but with an unmistakable marxist dominant.
GD: Another word that’s routinely used to describe your work is postmodern. Yet marxists have often been deeply suspicious of postmodernism. Where do you stand?
WM1: I agree with the late David Foster Wallace, an author whose work I admire. Both in his famous essay on TV entitled E Unibus Pluram and in a long interview with Larry McCaffery, DFW explained that the trouble with the latest generation of postmodernists was the ubiquity of irony and its misuse. If you’re ironical all the time, and if you’re ironical about everything, irony loses any critical potential, and your art becomes vacuous and bleak. That’s what happened with the particular kind of ironic pose adopted by postmodernist artists and authors. It was edgy and interesting 30 years ago, but later on it was completely absorbed and coopted by dominant culture and became the emotional undertone of the 1980s and 1990s. Irony is an important weapon and rhetorical figure, but you’ve got to know when to use it. Anyway, in Italy it is commonly accepted that the stuff we write no longer belongs to postmodernism: postmodernism is now regarded as something that completed its cycle in the 1990s.
GD: Yet another term that gets misused in our country is “surreal”, which we often take to mean “strange” rather than the original sense of “beyond reality”. In the original sense, Manituana seems like quite a surrealist novel, with its use of dreams and the supernatural. Do you agree?
WM1: Again, thank you for this comparison, I love the Surrealists, I read a lot of stuff by Breton, Artaud, Crevel, Eluard, Aragon. It’s a pity that some of them became staunch stalinists …
GD: What can you tell me about your newest novel, Altai? When can we expect to see it in English translation?
WM1: I don’t know about translations yet, we just delivered the text to the Italian publisher. We worked very hard, and I feel it’s one of the most important books we ever wrote. It’s related to Q, some characters come from that novel, but this isn’t set in Central Europe, it is set all over the Eastern Mediterranean: the Balkans, Greece, Istanbul, the Red Sea. In the springtime of 2008 we became a quartet, because one member left the band for personal reasons. It wasn’t exactly consensual, things like these may happen even in the happiest families. We decided to embark into a new project to overcome the “trauma”, and what better option than going back to Q?
GD: “It wasn’t exactly consensual” -- that sounds more like artistic differences than personal reasons. Are you willing/able to say any more?
WM1: No, I’m not. Sorry. There’s another person involved, a friend of mine for almost 20 years. For more than a year we’ve bendt over backwards not to hurt anyone’s feelings. Actually we reached some sort of consensus, and I think everybody did the right thing in the end, but really, I can’t tell you more than that. Only that it was personal (and, of course, the personal can’t help affect the artistic), and it was painful. I’m not telling you anything that wasn’t in our official 2008 communiqué.
GD: Have you any plans to recruit a replacement?
WM1: No, we haven’t. We’re a quartet now.
GD: What other projects are you working on at the moment?
WM1: Now that Altai is finished, I think we’ll work on the next instalment of the Atlantic Triptych started with Manituana.
To learn more about Wu Ming visit their website at wumingfoundation.com