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Altai, identity, politics and history

Wu Ming interviewed by Seth Wheeler.

Wu Ming is the collective nom de plume for a band of four radical storytellers. Their current constellation grew out of a previous collective project, in which they had collaborated as Luther Blissett. Luther Blissett developed a certain notoriety and their novel Q received favourable reviews the world over.

Q dealt with the cycle of struggles that characterized the peasant revolts of 14th century Europe from the perspective of a radical Anabaptist current. In 2009, Wu Ming revisited ‘the scene of their previous crime’, producing the novel Altai. Set in the same temporal universe as Q, Altai follows the story of the battle of Lepanto through the eyes of various protagonists, and is set in Venice, Istanbul and the Mediterranean. Altai has recently been translated into English and is published by Verso Books.

I met Wu Ming 1 & 2 in London to chat through the politics of Altai, a day before current events in Constantinople would capture the imagination of radicals everywhere.

“Over the years, I’ve learned that the means change the end.”

– Ismail, Altai

3:AM: Through certain eyes, the character of Ismail can be read as both an avatar of a form of resistance politics, and as a precautionary character. His emphasis on ‘means as ends’ which runs through Altai attests to this. Can you elaborate further on this as a political distinction, and who in the current political landscape best represents his ideals?

Wu Ming: Ok, so in this novel the character of Joseph Nasi wishes to establish a Jewish utopian state, a state that is open to all the persecuted peoples of Christian Europe. He believes he can do this by buying it with money and deploying the Ottoman Army, for him the means justify his ends. This cannot happen, something that Ismail understands from his experiences in the revolutionary moments revealed in our novel Q.

Revolutions must come from below, from the ground up, amongst the struggles of the grass roots. Revolutions cannot be bought or dictated from above, if they are, they sow the seeds of their own defeat, regardless of however lofty the ideals. This is something we address in all our novels, an emphasis on the revolution that is made from below.

Do you know of the Spanish 15M movement, the indignados? Thousands of people are involved in this movement; they have been organising amongst each other to resist evictions, defending tenants from cops and are having many victories. Recently they have taken the struggle to the politicians themselves, persecuting them in public. For example, if a politician goes out for dinner they will stand outside the restaurant with megaphones denouncing their involvement in legislation that supports foreclosure, or even go and stand outside their houses. We think this is good. We are also interested in the global occupy movement which takes a similar form to this.

In Italy, the situation is very different at the moment from that of Spain or Greece. The political crisis has been temporarily postponed by the ‘weapon of mass distraction’ that is Beppe Grillo and the 5 Star Movement. Grillo has been able to slow down the flow of political dissent by channeling it into an electoral party that presents itself as a radical alternative, but, in fact acts as a stabilizing mechanism for the status quo. The crisis will get worse but Italy is not yet at the stages experienced in Greece or Spain, perhaps in two years’ time.

We should also say that neither are we looking for an Ismail of the present, instead we look for the community to which Ismail belongs, a Mokha, the community that includes both the Chrisitan, the Jew, the Muslim, the Sufi mystic etc etc.

“Run Comrade, the old world is behind you”

– Slogan scrawled on the walls of Paris ‘68

3:AM: Causes, flags, identities seem very fluid in both Altai and its predecessor, Q. Protagonists often adopt new identities, to evade repression or to start life afresh. Transference and the mutation of identity are important in your writing; why do you place so much emphasis on this?

Wu Ming: In all our novels, characters have different identities or multiple names and this is something that has always fascinated us. For example, the character Ismail was not always called by that name; in Q he is Gert from_the_well. The Grand Vizier who appears in Altai is Serbian by birth, a boy from the Balkans called Bajica, who becomes Soluka Mehmed Pasha, who is also known by another name, The Giant, due to his size. To avoid persecution as a Jew in Christian Venice, the central character Manuel Cardoso becomes Emanuele De Zante, a Christian Venetian spy, who later again becomes Manuel Cardoso, this time working in and against the Ottoman Empire.

You need only look at our involvement in the Luther Blissett project to understand our fascination with identity. What excited us about Luther Blissett was the possibility to participate in a new form of collective identity, one that would allow for singular forms of expression or action to be taken that are then attributed to a collective nom de plume, a means to establish a folk hero of the internet age. An identity that was both collective and allowed for singularity.

Someone is never really one person anyway. How you speak to your father is different from how you speak or behave amongst your friends. You are a different person when you are in a chatroom from when you are speaking at a political rally, you wish to present yourself differently, or convey different meanings. Identity is multiple and complex and is always in a state of flux. It is also important for revolutionaries to have more than one identity. If you are defeated in one name, you can pick yourself up and start again under another.

“You may ask yourself, well how did I get here?”

– Talking Heads, Once in a Lifetime

3:AM: How important is a knowledge of historic struggle when these events themselves can never truly be repeated, due to structural changes in power, the decomposition / recomposition of the class, etc?

Wu Ming: History gives you a sense of continuity between generations; an understanding of  the cycle of struggles that have preceded you.  It is true that events can never be repeated; instead Q and Altai can be read as an open metaphor for revolution. How the metaphor resonates or is understood by the reader is in part due to the will of the authors and what the reader also brings to that encounter.

3:AM: Ok, this is interesting. When I read Q, I saw it as a direct metaphor for the alter-globalization movement, in which I was then active. Others suggested that it was an allegorical story of Italian Autonomia. Who is correct?

Wu Ming: Q was published in Italy 6 months before the ‘Battle of Seattle’ and we are not psychics, so no, it is not a metaphor for the alter-globalization movement. As for Autonomia, Q is not so much about that either. It is an open metaphor about revolutions and cycles of struggle.

3:AM: I read Altai as a precautionary tale; one regarding the dangers of choosing bad political bedfellows. Also, as a way of exploring the difference between the practice of politics as an end in itself, and political projects that see ‘end goals’ being justified by any means.

For Italian readers, I imagine this was also the case but more tied up in the politics of Italy’s present. Altai deals in part with the battle of Lepanto, which is deployed by the Right as a national foundation mythology. I imagine in Italy Altai is received as a more pointed attack on the political Right than here in the UK?

Wu Ming: Yes, the battle of Lepanto is often invoked by the Italian Right. The Northern League have been in a coalition government for two decades, which should tell you how fucked up things are in Italy. They often use the memory of this battle to stir up hatred against Muslims. You have your own problems in the UK with fascist groups like the EDL, the Northern League is a bit like having the EDL in government. They have produced posters saying things like ‘do as we did at Lepanto’. Despite the fact that this is an over-simplification of the historical event itself, it was important for us to write a story of that event from another perspective, one that would allow us to explore the events of Lepanto in all their complexity, and to unpack the myth as it is used by the right.

3:AM: Altai charted high in the Italian fiction charts, reaching number five. How was the book received culturally?

Wu Ming: We received very favorable reviews; some of them were very good indeed—on blogs, websites and in newspapers, but the Italian literary establishment hates us. By writing collectively, we have unpicked the story of the lone writer as the sole creator of genius. For them, literature is produced by the lone ‘sensitive’ individual, or by the tragic figure of the tortured artist, the junkie poet or alcoholic. This is just another way of selling the same myth, that the person is so sensitive and such a genius they must become a junkie to cope. Our collective identity unnerves them.

Narrative is also not seen as worthy literature by the literary establishment. It is beneath them. In Italy, anyone who writes with narrative is seen as mere ‘pulp fiction’. We do not classify ourselves as writers or authors anyway. We prefer the title ‘storytellers’. Our motto on our website is ‘to tell stories by any means necessary’.

3:AM: In the Anglo-speaking world you are known for your historical novels, yet in Italy you have a huge body of work that addresses contemporary politics and more beside.

Wu Ming: This is something that we find frustrating. In England we are known solely as historical novelists; conversely in Spain we are known solely as political activists. This is equally frustrating.  Only the French seem to understand the complexity of our project as a whole. This is due to our French translator Serge Quadruppani who is also a writer and political activist himself.

3:AM: I was very taken by the essay ‘We are all Feb 1917’ that appeared on your website in 2011. Are there any plans to publish a book of your essays in English?

Wu Ming: That is really up to Verso or whoever. ‘We are all Feb 1917’ and essays like that make up the vast majority of our collective output. After we have finished our current book, which addresses the French revolution, we wish to focus on producing more of what we call ‘unidentified narrative objects’. These are texts that blur the distinctions between fact and fiction. They deploy different narrative and literary techniques, be that journalism, reportage, cut and paste, prose, historical sources, literary and political critique to explore any given issue or topic. This is what interests us at the moment, playing with the form of our content.

3:AM: I take it the novel you are working on is part of your proposed ‘transatlantic triptych’, of which Manituana was the first installment. Will characters from Manituana be returning in the new novel?

Wu Ming: The book is currently 800 pages long and addresses the French revolution. It is so large it could be a triptych in itself. It is not a direct sequel to Manituana, in the sense that there are no shared or reoccurring characters; well, not anymore at least.

The trilogy deals with the cycle of revolutionary struggles that characterized the transatlantic basin during the 18th century, and how these resonate with each other. The continuity between the novels is ‘revolution’ itself. There is a character that appears who has fought in the American revolution on the side of the French, but he is not a character from Manituana.

3:AM: Q dealt with a series of distinct cycles of struggle, blurring the lines between victory and defeat. It put me in mind of the William Morris quote which opens Antonio Negri’s Empire:

I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.

To me this quote carries a certain truth about the nature of struggle that resonates with the early theoretical work of the Italian Operaists. Is it fair to say this is how you interpret the movement of history, as a blur between victory and failure rather than the belief in final or inevitable victories as often proposed by many in the Orthodox left?

As an aside, before I had read Altai, I had imagined Gert from_the_well leaving for the Ottoman Empire, and playing a role in the establishment of the coffee trade between Europe and the Middle East. Which is in itself a part of a larger assemblage of events, that includes the emergence of European coffee house culture, debating societies, the enlightenment and by default the foundations of Communism.

Wu Ming: Well in a way Gert did do what you say. There is never an absolute victory and there are no absolute failures. Struggles continue after failure albeit often in a different form; they are a continuum. In this regard we like the Zapatista quote ‘walking while asking questions’. For us this talks about the nature of struggle and how we can relate to it. Revolutionaries must constantly redress their own activity, take stock of our collective achievements, be reflective, and be ready for change or something new. You can not think with your arse stuck to an armchair, walking is the best way to think, to actually be in movement is the only way that you can reconsider your actions.

3:AM: Fail but fail better, with more capacity for the next round?

Wu Ming: Yes, like Beckett says, “Fail again. Fail better.”

About the Interviewer:
Seth Wheeler is a PhD candidate in Oral History at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the co-editor of Occupy Everything, published by Minor Compositions (2012). He is a part of the Novara Media Cadre and a member of Plan C. Twitter: @sethnotes

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, June 4th, 2013.