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Literary Doppelgängers

Wu Ming interviewed by Andrew Stevens and Richard Marshall.


3:AM: This interview is taking place against the backdrop of the G8 summit in Scotland. What do you make of that?

WM: Not much. Strategic decisions are never made at summits. Those “leaders of the rich world” never discuss anything crucial. Decision-making belongs to the corporation potentates, and takes place in the realm of everyday obscurity. Summits are garish but necessary rituals, power depends on such rituals, they’ve got to have some sort of ceremony, “See? We’re more important than the folks out there, those pathetic earthlings… We can’t go back to worldliness”. We aren’t sure it is worth spoiling their wank party, we were in Genoa in 2001, we were on the streets when Carlo Giuliani was killed… We need another approach: poison their food, maybe… Anyway, if the purpose is spoiling their party, then Burlesquoni is our best agent. He’s a crawling shit sausage, wherever he turns up, he usually stinks up the room. The other premiers and heads of state always put good faces upon embarrassing situations. He’s the real party spoiler, let HIM do the dirty work.

3:AM: What do you make of the recent Red Brigade trials? Don’t you think anti-capitalism has moved on since the time of Aldo Moro’s assassination, even if the ‘ruling classes’ haven’t?

WM: The whole Red Brigade thing is a farce. The “New Red Brigades” were just a bunch of half-witted weirdos. They took their trip to Fantasyland, and when Ricardo Montalban — very cool in his white suit — asked them what he could do for them, they answered: “WE WANNA BE THE RED BRIGADES!” He gave them toy guns, fake moustaches and a life-size inflatable doll of Joe Stalin, and let them play as long as they wanted. The Italian intelligence has been aware of their activities for years, it turned out that Nadia Lioce was under surveillance since 1999, and yet she shot down Professor Marco Biagi in Bologna in 2002! The state simply let them do whatever they pleased, their very existence provided the perfect smear campaign, the whole Left was guilty by association. This is the way things go in our country. As far as we’re concerned, we despise anyone who wants to turn the clock back to the style of 18th and 19th century conspiratorial organisations. Secret societies are freak factories, the revolution is not a Masonic affair.

3:AM: Q and 54 are works in translation. How do you perceive your status as translated authors over here (in the UK) as opposed to in your native Italy?

WM: We’ve always regarded ourselves as transnational authors. There is no localism in our work. Our voices are distinctly Italian, however, when we write a new book, we never visualize a specifically Italian readership. Q was mainly set in Germany and the Netherlands, translated in twelve languages and published on three continents. 54 has a translatlantic feeling to it, and it’s hot on the heels of Q. The next collective novel won’t have anything to do with Italy. No Italian characters.

3:AM: Were you pleased with the reviews of Q?

WM: Some of them were pretty good, some others were short-sighted, but who cares? Reviews are certainly important, but word-of-mouth is the real mover.

3:AM: You argue that “In a classless society, anybody could be Cary Grant”. Obviously this is an extension of your collective persona, or am I wrong?

WM: The first chapter in which Cary appears includes a lengthy pseudo-historic, pseudo-theoretical, pseudo-Marxist raving on the Grant myth and its value for class struggle. The purpose was satirical, it’s a parody of our desperate attempts to rationalize why we like something, or someone. One thinks of the other people as bidimensional figures, the depth goes unperceived, you see a square where there is a hypercube. You pretend that a person’s ego is not fragmented, and point at their “inconsistencies”. You, in turn, try to display your consistency, each element of your persona must fit in with the rest. Someone asks you: “How does your love for Country & Western music fit in with your ideas on the origins of stars-and-stripes reactionary rhetoric?”, and there’s an immediate temptation to rationalize why you like Bill Monroe, the Carter family and the likes, you try to reach for some “subversive” angle to all that… The Left is crammed with radicals doing all kinds of somersaults to prove that the music they listen to is, in fact, unmistakeably radical, that the clothes they wear are not “bourgeois” etc. In 54, we ramble about Cary grant, the working class and socialism. It’s a pre-emptive self-parody, it’s like we’re warning the readers: “When asked why Cary Grant is in our novel, we’ll give an answer that sounds like THIS”. Simultaneously, we altered a quote by Marx and threw it in for good measure. It’s like: don’t take us too seriously, there’s something truthful in this interpretation, but Cary is not in the novel because of it. He’s in the novel because we like him, we find him intriguing, we dig his style.

3:AM: What, do you think, are the advantages and disadvantages of being a collective of writers working on the same text?

WM: The advantages: five brains think better than one. The disadvantages: each brain gains only a fifth of the royalties.

3:AM: Does the Wu Ming Foundation have any connection to any social, cultural or political movements, or is it just a literary enterprise?

WM: We’re fellow travellers of many, many people, which doesn’t mean we have to French-kiss all of them. Bad breath is a terrible plague among leftists, we’re sure you agree with us.

3:AM: Is Wu Ming akin to the Neoists’ negation of personality, the writer minus celebrity?

WM: Neoism doesn’t exist. It’s just a prefix teaming up with a suffix.

3:AM: What will Wu Ming’s next book be?

WM: The next collective novel is set in the 1770’s on both sides of the Atlantic, and tells a lot of stories, including how the Iroquois Six Nations (the oldest participatory democracy on Earth) were wiped out during the American Revolution. We’ve been working on it for about 14 months now; it will be ready by 2007. In the meanwhile, some of us have written and published “solo novels”. Wu Ming 5’s Havana Glam was published in Italy at the end of 2001. Wu Ming 2’s War on the Humans and Wu Ming 1’s New Thing were published in 2004. Wu Ming 5’s Free Karma Food will be published in 2006. So far, there are no plans to translate any of our solo novels into English.


3:AM: Q has taken a long time to get into England in English. Why is this? Has the time it has taken made a difference to its reception here in the UK? Do you feel the UK is as politically clever as Europe and can understand the book?

WM: The English-speaking (Anglo-American) book market is always very slow in picking up stuff from other languages. When Q was published in English, it had already been successful all across continental Europe and Latin America, sold more than 200,000 copies in Italy and become kind of a “cult best-seller”. Moreover, we’d already founded the Wu Ming collective and published three more novels, one of which, 54, is already translated into Spanish. Most likely, the fact that the British critics were completely unaware of these developments has affected the way they described the book. Had they known that in Europe nobody, not even the least dogged working class readers, had had any difficulty in reading and understanding the novel, some of them wouldn’t have skimmed hastily through the pages and assumed it was “too difficult” or “incomprehensible”, or even “elitist”. Anyway, as far as we know, the book is selling quite well, and the public’s reaction is very different from that of the critics, which is the most important thing to us. It doesn’t take any particular political cleverness to enjoy Q, it may be read simply as an adventure novel or a spy story.

3:AM: Stewart Home makes a point about how in England the historical backdrop of the English Revolution — Cromwell and all that — is perhaps better understood than the European one you use. Do you think this is true and do you think this has hampered critical reaction to the book here? Is this a case of English intellectuals being quite provincial and limited?

WM: The historical backdrop we used is unknown even in Italy, where only an elite of hardcore Marxists knows about the German Peasants’ War of 1524-25, and yet this was no obstacle to enjoying the book. We understand that Q reached no. 2 in the Chilean charts, and we don’t think that people in Chile knew a lot about Thomas Muentzer before reading the novel.

3:AM: You are fans of pulp fiction — what books have you read that you would say were helpful to the writing of Q?

WM: The most influential novel was American Tabloid by James Ellroy. If you pay attention, Q has a very similar structure: while in American Tabloid the flow of action is interrupted by transcripts of wire-tapped phone conversations between J. Edgar Hoover and his agents, in Q the reader bumps into Q’s letters to Carafa.

3:AM: What critical reactions have you had to your work in the US? Has the war on Iraq made it easier for readers there to understand the parallels between the world of Q and the present?

WM: The book hasn’t yet been published in the US, however, we don’t think it is going to sell many copies, it is rare that European books have any commercial success over there.

3:AM: In what ways has the collective authorship helped the critical reaction to the book, and it what ways has it hindered, if at all?

WM: Some critics attributed the frequent changes in style and rhythm to us being a collective, thinking that each change of style was at best half-intentional and was due to the switch from one individual author to the next, but this is absurd: all changes were intentional, it was necessary to give the impression of the class division and “linguistic apartheid” of that age, that’s why Q’s letters are convoluted and flowery (they are a translation from an inexistent Latin text after all) while the other chapters are filled with oral idioms and cuss words: in Ancient Regime Europe there was a rigid distinction between the language of the folk and that of the upper classes.

3:AM: There are now several Wu Mings, I believe they number five. Can you explain the thinking behind this as it seems to go against the ‘No Name’ idea of multiple identities.

WM: Wu Ming is not a multiple identity in the Luther Blissett style. That project was a five-year plan and expired in December 1999. The following month we founded Wu Ming, which — to put it simply — is a band. Only it is not a band of musicians but a band of writers. “Wu Ming” means “No name”, it’s the signature used by dissidents in China and it is our tribute to dissent in that country and everywhere else. “Wu Ming” also means “unknown” and it is also a reference to the fact that we refuse the idea of the “Author” as a “genius” or a “star” whom the public contemplates in a passive way. That doesn’t mean that our names are secret, nothing like that. The fact that Police had that name doesn’t mean that Sting, Andy Summers and Stewart Copeland were coppers, does it?

3:AM: How far do you think the acceptance of Q within the mainstream publishing world and its commercial success have furthered an avant-garde prankster position, and how far has it threatened it by in some ways subsuming it within itself? Is there pressure now on you to work in a different way, maybe as individuals, and do you think this undermines or threatens in some way your attempt to declare “war on the rich” through your writing? Or is this just an inevitable part of the process?

WM: There is no pressure whatsoever, all our books have been bestsellers, thus we have a very strong position, and we have a very pugnacious literary agent. Back in 1999, we managed to impose a copyleft clause on our Italian publisher, for four years we’ve managed to extend it to major publishers all over the planet, now we’re putting pressure on our Italian publisher to publish our books on 100% recycled paper… We keep our feet on the streets and, from time to time, ram a clenched fist into the publishers’ offices.

3:AM: Were you surprised by the success of the novel and are there things that you would have done differently if you had known how big it was going to be? Or did you always feel it would be successful?

WM: We always felt it would be successful, although we couldn’t imagine it would be that successful. Q was the last act of the Luther Blissett Project. Before that, there had been five years of cultural guerrilla warfare, during which we hit front-page headlines and prime-time TV news several times.

3:AM: Do you have a sense of your readership? Do you get a sense that it is the same or different from the one you were expecting or targeting?

WM: At least in Italy, there is no way to target the readership, because our novels can be read and interpreted (or not interpreted) on several levels: there are people who simply enjoy it as genre fiction, others that lay the stress on its alleged allegorical intents. It’s being read by old middle class ladies and teenage punks, factory workers and intellectuals, good folks and sociopaths.

3:AM: ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ What are your thoughts about the current cultural situation, both in a national, European and global context?

WM: The complete failure of the neo-liberal economics pushed by the IMF and the WTO is under everyone’s eyes. Capital devised two main “solutions” to the 1929 Wall Street Crack and the 1930’s Depression: one was Roosevelt’s New Deal, the other one was Fascism. So far, the answer to the current global crisis is no new deal, it is warfare. The Neo-Con gang (which includes Tony Blair) has declared war on the planet but nobody can win a war on the whole planet, also because the US are a gradually declining superpower, not the Romulan empire. The inevitable “Vietnamization” of the Middle East shouldn’t have taken anyone by surprise, it is only natural. More and more soldiers will die, by the end of 2004 we’ll have counted them by the thousands. We’re not happy about it but it shows that anti-war movements were right, that “pre-emptive war” was going to be a catastrophic adventure. The point is that the powers-that-be are nihilist, they don’t give a shit about the future, they just want power and profits now. If not so, why don’t they care about global warming instead of waging absurd wars? Why don’t they care about power outrages instead of trying to fool us into thinking that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction?

3:AM: Italian politics — is it as bad as it seems or are we in the UK being fed a pretty crude racial stereotype of Italians?

WM: It is extremely bad, but it is far from being hopeless. Now the Berlusconi government is suffering a great crisis. Owing to the external pressure of both mass social movements and the judiciary there is so much backstabbing within the coalition, so many ministers and vice-ministers had to resign because of scandals, and Berlusconi has such a terrible reputation in the country and abroad, that many people don’t think he can last in office for too long. Last February’s pacifist mobilization (three million and a half people marching in Rome on Februrary 15th) have managed to keep Italy out of the “Coalition of the Willing”, only very recently Berlusconi was able to send Italian troops (for alleged peace-keeping purposes) down to Iraq. Quite soon, some of them will be returning home in body bags, which will be damning for the government.

3:AM: What new projects are you working on and can they be expected to hit the UK quicker than Q?

WM: Three of us are working on their solo novels, which will be published in the course of 2004, and we are already doing research for the next collective novel, which we should be able to finish by 2006. As for the UK, it is likely that 54 will be published by the end of 2004.

In January 2000, a fifth person joined the four authors of Q and a new band of authors was born: Wu Ming (Chinese for “anonymous”). Since then, they have authored further novels and essays. So far, their major collective effort has been 54, a novel set in 1954, with dozens of lead characters (including actor Cary Grant), also translated in English and several European languages. The book was an inspirational source for the Italian folk-rock band Yo Yo Mundi whose concept album (also titled 54) was released at the beginning of 2004. Each member of Wu Ming has a nom de plume composed of the name of the group plus a number (depending on the alphabetical order of their last names).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, July 21st, 2005.