:: Article

A Choral, Polyphonic World

Wu Ming 1 and 4 interviewed by Richard Marshall.


Wu Ming: We lost a member of the band in 2008. We were five, now we are four. We were a quintet, now we are a quartet. We are writing the second episode of the Atlantic triptych Manituana. Now we are working on the French Revolution. So we are working on some characters active in both the American Revolution and the French Revolution such as Lafayette who was active in both. Our latest book that was published a year ago in Italy and now Verso has bought the rights. It was wrongly described as a sequel to Q. It’s not exactly a sequel although it is connected because it has some characters that are in Q. It is set in the Ottoman Empire fifteen years after the end of Q. Q ended in Istanbul. But we are currently researching the French Revolution, especially 1793, the peak of Terror. We’re interested in Terror.

3:AM: Do you all agree on your politics or have you different politics?

WM: We are almost always agreed on our politics. There may be minor disagreements. Mainly we agree. In the novels we usually put in many characters. We like to create a choral, polyphonic world. It gives us the chance to explore many opinions and divergences and disagreements and harsh conflicts. For example in Manituana the situation is very complex and no one knows who are the good characters, who are the bad. Of course there are relatively good ones but it’s only ‘relatively good.’ Even good ones make tragic mistakes and are wrong on some issues. This isn’t a way of weakening our own stance but is a way of exploring our stance. We know who are the good ones only we don’t want to depict them to reassure our identity whether political or moral or cultural. We want to challenge your identity as a reader.

3:AM: So how are they written? Do you have an audience in mind?

WM: We are completely unable to anticipate who our readership is because our public is so diverse. There are old ladies who are into historical historical fiction and young punks into anarchy, so we can’t predict.

3:AM: The books aren’t stodgy and boring but are great read.

WM: We try to write novels that are multi-layered and entertaining. We hope that what we do allows multi-level readings, so it is possible for an allegorical reading and different readings open to interpretation in certain directions. The novels are not propaganda but are multi-directional stuff. Of course we have a definite politics. [Laughs] We are obviously not fascists.

The official organ of the Italian communist party published a stupid review accusing Manituana of being a reactionary novel because it was about blood and land. That was stupid because the book was about the internal politics of Italian communisms.

We’re trying to speak to the half of the population that we think is good against Berlusconi, the fascists, the Northern League and xenophobic movements on one side. We know there’s a half and half split in Italy at present. There’s a cultural civil war going on. It’s explicit in Italy and the right wing is victorious. The country isn’t settled, as half of Italy is completely opposed to the right.

Italy’s in perennial site of conflict. 54 was exactly about this, about turning points in the national history. History is heavily contested by the right. They re-evaluate history from a fascist point of view. They do it in a flowery style and they would never use a term like fascism but that what they’re doing. So we set that novel in 1950s Italy, where most of the characters are remnants of the resistance and are looking at their shattered dreams of revolution.

Even then Italy turned again on the right because of McCarthyism and anti-communist crusaders, the role of Catholic Church, the Marshal plan from the USA and the Yalta Pact. And so by setting a story in that period we were already making a political point. It was a red hot topic for the media and politics. The most political thing in our writing is the choice of the historical period. It is already political. Not that everything in them has to be strictly allegorical. They work as enjoyable genre fiction but the choice already makes them political. Writing about Manituana after September 11th is already political in itself.


3:AM: You’re amplifying history. What’s the role of religion in your novel and cultural background?

WM: Yes. So we come from some currents and strands of current Catholic
thinking, the more near-heretical strands and we read some of the revolutionary liberation Catholicism from Latin America which fuses with Marxism. We’ve never been dismissive of the religious issue even though we are atheists and anti-clerical and against the pope and church et cetera. But we’re never dismissive of faith and religion. You have to understand what happens with religion. It touches hearts and minds.. Wu Ming 4 did his degree on ‘Christianity as a Revolutionary Metaphor during the English Revolution’ and he used a lot of the material for the writing for Q. He wrote about the Levellers, Winstanley, the Ranters, the Diggers and so on.

3:AM: This links with some of Stewart Home’s interests.

WM: Exactly. We were in close touch with Stewart in the 90s but we haven’t been as much now as then. When Q was published there was a conflict in the protestant religious community because of the book. In Italy Protestantism is a very small group but they have a small prestigious publishing house run by what are theologically pre-lutheran Protestants, the Valdezians. They are very few Calvinists and Lutherans and Valdezians so they all cooperate in Italy. When Q was published there was a negative review on Reforma, the weekly magazine of the Protestant church which said the book removed faith and made Luther anachronistically atheistic with no real faith at all. It also said that this was a Marxian interperation and that it was all wrong.

But a week later another member of the editorial board attacked this reviewer’s criticism and wrote that there was more faith in the book than from writers overstuffed with religion. We put this review in the second edition because we were so pleased by it. We were interested in Priests becoming guerrillas and Sandinistas and the lLN being founded by a Catholic priest.

3:AM: What do you hope happens after reading?

WM: Nothing can change anything just by reading so just reading our books won’t change anything on its own. But we hope the books are important in the crosslink between things. We actively seek a relationship with our readers. We crave feedback, and not only not only criticism, not only questions, but also fan fiction, spin offs, short stories, music composed inspired by our novels, being part of an informal open community – that’s the thing we look for.

We can’t anticipate every reaction because of the diversity of our audience but we don’t necessarily want to cause outrage like Stewart Home. Rather than outrage I think what we are wanting to do is be involved in a continual conversation with people. That’s why we are continually on the road, we have more than 600 presentations since the beginning of this reading tour. We are like Bob Dylan’s Neverending Tour.

3:AM: Can you say something about the future of books, and the contemporary publishing industry?

WM: We are constantly asked about Kindleand the public discourse on publishing, on the role of the publisher and the role of books. I have a Kindle. All our books are downloadable free. They can be e-produced using a ‘Copyleft’ clause, so everyone can reproduce them, so long as they are reproduced not for profit. So all our books you can have them for free and photocopy them.

We have concrete evidence that this availability doesn’t affect the sales of physical books. The more the work circulates the more people want it in bookshops. Q has been available since January 2000 free. There have been thousands of downloads. It now has had almost 20 reprints and sells 15000 copies a year, which is good, especially for Italy. They resonate positively. You can read it on screen to start with but then maybe you get bored and buy the book or else you give it as a present.

If you think about gifts for others, or if you are enthusiastically wanting to share the book with someone else. What do you do? You give them A4 printout sheets? No, of course not. You buy it. The downloaded copy gets purchased. And you talk about the downloaded version so someone else may buy it after listening to you.

It is a virtuous circle. It goes on all the time. They download and they keep buying. Digitisaton won’t destroy books. If the publishing industry doesn’t get ready for the digitisation of books then it will end up like the record industry. That committed suicide by resisting innovation and even threatened potential fans and purchases. They are now much weaker than they were. Profits eroded.

Publishers need to change their approach and understand the innovation. The big publishers want to sell digital rights. We don’t sell digital rights for republication to Italian publishers because they think they rule the game and they want the same percentage for the digital and the physical books. That isn’t right. They want to keep the same ratio of royalties and this is absurd.

It is a problem of psychology. It is a mindset where they still see themselves as the pinnacle element of the process. But they need to understand that everyone can digitise. What they should do is re-evaluate what they are. They should work at becoming useful intermediates between an author and an audience putting a seal of approval on a work, saying ‘I’m a prestigious publisher and I think it is worth the price.’ If they think they are an essential part of the process they are making a mistake. They misunderstand this phase of the cultural industry. They must work on quality, not on being greedy.


Richard Marshall is still biding his time.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 8th, 2010.