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Everyone does everything

James O'Nions meets two members of the Italian novel-writing collective Wu Ming as they publish Manituana, their 'story from the wrong side of history'

December 7, 2009
14 min read

James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He also manages local activism and events for Global Justice Now.

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Wu Ming is an unusual creature in the world of literature – a novelist collective. Hailing from Bologna, the authors’ chosen name means ‘anonymous’ in Chinese. It is a common byline for Chinese dissidents but for the collective also signifies a refusal of celebrity.

Yet while you won’t find them posing for publicity photos, their identities are not a Banksy-style secret. When I met Wu Ming 1 (Roberto) and Wu Ming 4 (Frederico) in London, they were on a short publicity tour for their latest novel, Manituana. Set during the American Revolution, it’s the third novel for the group, whose first, Q, was nominated for the Guardian First Book Award in 2003. A historical novel, like their subsequent books, Q ranges across 16th-century Europe following revolutionary Anabaptists and a papal secret agent (the ‘Q’ of the title) as they fight it out for the future of Christianity and the continent.

The two of them have a curious interview style. Roberto, in classic radical left footwear (black Doc Martens with red laces) spoke extensively in response to my questions. Frederico (stylishly moustachioed and wearing a waistcoat) hardly spoke at all, just interjecting occasionally into Roberto’s flow. Maybe Roberto had simply had more espresso …

Q was written as part of the ‘Luther Blisset project’ and published under that name. What was the Luther Blisset project about?

Wu Ming 1: Well, it involved hundreds of people in fact. The first invitations to use the Luther Blisset multiple-use name were sent out in summer of 1994. Most of the people who were initially involved were activists from the Italian social centres and artists. We wanted it to be an assault on popular culture, not just confined to the art world but something popular and used by many people.

It became a huge phenomenon. According to one Italian magazine, at least 400 people were involved in the use of the name in Italy, though it was used in other countries too. The celebrity of the name is associated with media pranks. We passed fake news onto the Italian media, which they published without any fact-checking, and then we claimed responsibility and explained what bugs in the media system we had exploited to get those stories in the press. It’s a kind of pedagogical device. To this day we don’t know who did what in most of the cases where a prank was pulled on the national media.

Wu Ming 4: But we were involved in one of the most notorious pranks …

Wu Ming 1: Exactly, because we invented the reputation of a British artist and we told a story about him. We said that this guy had disappeared in northern Italy, when crossing the border with the former Yugoslavia. He was touring Europe on a mountain bike because he wanted to write the word ‘art’ on the map of Europe. We even invented his face by morphing different faces using a computer. The most famous missing persons’ show on Italian television sent a TV crew to seek him out. They interviewed us as friends of this guy. Then they came to London and interviewed people who were our accomplices in the prank and he [Wu Ming 4] was the middle man between the TV crew and the others – they went around London showing them houses where he had lived.

The report was ready and about to be broadcast on national television in prime time but at the last moment they checked the facts and discovered that this guy was imaginary. But the news about the report had already been published in various newspapers, so they cut a sorry figure anyway. We claimed responsibility and did a press conference explaining that we had invented everything. The use of the Luther Blisset name skyrocketed in the following weeks.

Q was our last contribution to the project. We decided to write a novel with many levels of interpretation. There was one level of allegorical interpretation – it is also a novel about media pranks and information guerrilla war. There are hidden references to pranks that we had played, but it is multi-layered. Then, in 1999, the project expired because it had been a five-year plan from the beginning. In January 2000, the authors of Q started a new project – Wu Ming. It was almost 10 years ago.

Wu Ming 4: We are old!

So how do you write a collective novel?

Wu Ming 1: I’m not sure I know because it is automatic to us. We didn’t decide the method and then start to write, we just started writing. Each one of us writes a chapter and then reads it to the others, who then have their say. That’s only the first draft because the others keep on improving it.

Wu Ming 4: We decide on plot first …

Wu Ming 1: Yes, we decide on the content of the chapter, but as far as style goes, each one of us is free to experiment how he wants, but knowing that the other guys will get their hands on it. Everything that you write is relative, not absolute. You know that it will be changed but that gives you even more freedom because you can do any kind of experiment – no matter the outcome, it will be reprocessed by the whole collective. And we keep doing that until the final results satisfy us. But there’s no fixed process; it’s very flexible and we improvise a lot.

We usually make two comparisons between our work and other phenomena. The first is with the kind of collective improvisation that takes place in jazz. The other one is 1970s’ Dutch football. Holland invented so-called ‘total football’, where the goalkeeper could score a goal and everyone could do everything. Sometimes we are asked about roles – for example, who does the historical research? Everyone does everything.

A lot of your characters were real people – Thomas Munster, Joseph Brandt, Cary Grant of course – and yet also there are invented characters as well. So how do you go about negotiating the terrain between history and fiction?

Wu Ming 1: That’s a good question.

Wu Ming 4: When we choose a historical character we have to imagine what he needs in a particular situation.

Wu Ming 1: It has to be plausible. That’s the only necessary condition. It has to be consistent with what happens in the rest of the book. The internet changed many things as far as preparation for a historical novel is concerned. Now we have access to so much information, so many archives are available for public use. And almost every aspect of a particular historical event has been covered. For example with the American Revolution, if you need the detail about George Washington’s teeth, there is an essay on it.

Wu Ming 4: A great essay!

Wu Ming 1: A marvellous essay about the fact that when the revolution happened, George Washington had no real teeth in his mouth. He had wooden dentures, painted white.

In Manituana, of the main male characters, there is only one completely fictional person, Phillipe Lacroix. The others are based on real people, but the fact that we inserted that one character changes everything, the interaction between them. The way you can describe Joseph Brandt changes completely if you make him speak to Phillipe Lacroix, because he is like the conscience of Joseph Brandt.

Wu Ming 4: His alter ego …

Wu Ming 1: Yes. So all the historical events we cover are real. I think that’s because of the internet – you can order books from every part of the world.

Wu Ming 4: Writing Q was much more difficult.

Wu Ming 1: Yes, because we had to physically go to libraries. If you read a historical novel written in the 19th century, you’ll see that actual history is only in the background and the characters are all fictional. It’s not like that any more. You can put history in the foreground because you know so much about it.

In Manituana you tell the story from the point of view not only of the Mohawk nation, but of the partisans of King George. For progressives, that’s quite an unusual approach isn’t it?

Wu Ming 1: Of course, there’s Thomas Paine and so on. But if you look at the American Revolution from the point of view of blacks and native Americans, the relationship between the oppressed and oppressors gets turned upside down. Black slaves escaped from plantations in order to enlist in the British army. The owners of the plantations were people like Thomas Jefferson, George Washington – all of them were slave owners and some were slave traders. There’s a famous speech by Malcolm X about George Washington selling a slave in exchange for a barrel of molasses.

Wu Ming 4: But the British promised them freedom.

Wu Ming 1: Right. So it’s completely different if you look from that angle, and the same for the native Americans. The frontier which ran along the Appalachians had been co-signed by the Iroquois and George III, and was a guarantee that white settlers couldn’t invade land beyond the frontier. So they naturally sided with King George because the threat to those lands came from the other side. History is complex, so you can find ‘progressive’ features on both sides.

On the website for Manituana, you have various stories and music written by other people inspired by the book …

Wu Ming 1: We call it a transmedia project because the same story is told by various means. We write collectively, so it comes naturally to involve even more people, because we think that stories have the power of bringing people together to co-operate, and we try to put that into practice in an explicit way.

54 is set in the cold war, partly in Bologna which at the time was a stronghold of the Italian Communist Party. The sheer size of the Communist Party was something that we didn’t experience in Britain. Do you think there is a specific cultural legacy of the strength of the Italian Communist Party?

Wu Ming 1: The Communist Party in Italy was a strange creature because although it was a Stalinist party, it was able to retain some cultural independence from the Soviet Union. Gramsci’s theory of cultural hegemony, in particular, was completely different from Stalinism and was therefore almost an antibody which preserved cultural life in and around the party from being completely Stalinised.

The British Communist Party was 100 per cent Stalinist, very uptight. The Italian Communist Party was not only different, it was also a mass party. In the early 1980s it won 34 per cent of votes at the national level. No other western communist party was as strong as the Italian party. It’s not only a questions of votes, though – it’s a question of influencing intellectuals. People read Gramsci and believed in creating a cultural hegemony of the left in Italy. So they started to work in cinema with neorealism, in figurative arts, in painting, in theatre – you could find those people almost anywhere.

This is still a matter of complaint by the right wing now. Even though Berlusconi controls the media he keeps complaining about the cultural hegemony of the left. He has an inferiority complex because there are no real right-wing intellectuals in Italy. And it’s important that he keeps on complaining because it means that resistance still exists, and that may be the legacy of that era.

In the 1970s there was also a whole radical left that grew up outside the Communist Party. I know you were involved in writing a film about that …

Wu Ming 1: Yes, about Radio Alice …

Has that had a cultural legacy as well?

Wu Ming 1: Yes, the two are mixed together. Even that movement wouldn’t have been possible without the Communist Party – if you want to put yourself on the left of the Communist Party, the party is a point of reference …

Wu Ming 4: With all its oedipal connotations …

Wu Ming 1: Yes, with the psychological implications of killing the father as well! Even if they were in conflict with each other, the two traditions interfered with each other. And now it’s very difficult to tell what comes from one legacy and what from the other. For example, even though Toni Negri was an adversary of the traditional Communist Party, the fact that his books were published by nationally important publishing houses is a consequence of that project of cultural hegemony.

In Italy there was no clear distinction between the mainstream press and underground publishers. Elsewhere you have the small radical publishers, the counterculture, and then you have the big commercial publishers, while in Italy you have a big grey area, even today.

So in Italy you have the official left, Rifondazione, you have the social movements and social centres, you have the autonomists. Where do you see yourselves in all that?

Wu Ming 1: We don’t see ourselves anywhere now. We don’t think we are represented by any of the radical left now. We are in contact with people in various groups, but these are only contacts – we are not part of any movement. It’s confusing to know what’s going on in some ways. There are local movements, which can be very strong, which erupt into struggle, and then they go down, become invisible for a long time, and then they burst out again.

I don’t think we will be able to understand what the future is for us until Berlusconi is gone. I think that when he dies or is imprisoned, or however he goes, the whole official political system is likely to crumble as happened in 1993 after the Clean Hands enquiry against political corruption among the major Italian parties, which disbanded almost overnight. And then Berlusconi took the field because he was the alternative that the ruling class in Italy devised in order to fill that void. I think we are probably heading towards a similar situation.

You allow non-commercial reproduction of your work for free, which is an aspect of the ‘copyleft’ approach you’ve written about extensively. Why is it so important?

Wu Ming 1: When we started the Luther Blisset project, nothing had any sort of copyright, not even copyleft, because everything belonged to everybody. When we started publishing novels we faced a completely different problem: how to keep those books available to the biggest number of people while at the same time preventing a movie producer or another kind of corporate from stealing the work. ‘Copyleft’ was the solution. We are the authors, we own the rights, so we decide that people can photocopy or download our books for free, but they can’t resell the content or commercially exploit it, and they can’t add any new copyright because there is already one. There is a discrimination between corporate interests and the public domain.

Your next novel is going to be set back in the world of Q. Can you tell us anything more about it?

Wu Ming 1: It’s called Altai. It will be published in November in Italy. It is set in the Ottoman Empire 15 years after the end of Q and most of the action takes place in Istanbul, which is where the main characters fled at the end of Q. That’s all we have to say about it for now! But we hope it will be published soon in English too.

Manituana is published by Verso.

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James O'NionsJames O'Nions is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective. He also manages local activism and events for Global Justice Now.

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