The War for Pieces: Wu Ming's "Altai"

By Michael ThomsenAugust 3, 2013

The War for Pieces: Wu Ming's "Altai"

Altai by Wu Ming

LANGUAGE IS ONE OF THE FIRST FORMS of acquiescence in human life, a system that merges invention with history. The beautiful locutions of the lexical witch doctor can't be separated from the authority of the audience — which can accept or reject them. Language is both the medium through which humans strive to surpass their situation and a lattice binding us to everyone else. Language is always on loan from others, and it is always to others that our additions to it return.

The books of the Italian collective Wu Ming are historical soap operas that carry an extratextual awareness of their dependence on the past. Their stories dive into pre-Enlightenment history and leave in the densely researched fauna of letters, parables of the imperishable anarchist, stretching the tradition of rebellion past the prejudicial event horizon of Marx, whose prismatic work turned every generation’s before and after into formulaic struggles against history. Wu Ming’s stories remind the reader that these historical fights for a peaceful collective existence can make equally persuasive cases on their own terms, without the Marxian jargon or modeling.

Altai is the group's most recent book, a sequel to the best-selling Q, a market triumph published in 1999 when the group was one member larger and called themselves Luther Blissett. Under the Blissett moniker, the group had broad-sweeping ambitions participating in a decade-long project called "The Great Art Swindle," wherein a fictional performance artist called Darko Maver was created and said to have been planting artificial corpses in small towns across the Balkans as a way of satirizing the media's commodification of suffering in its coverage of the Yugoslavian dissolution. Maver was heralded as a celebrity who was arrested and charged with anti-patriotic propaganda in Kosovo and later found dead in his prison cell, which many in the art world suspected to have been an execution.

As critics debated the importance of Maver's life, Luther Blissett released a press release in partnership with 0100101110101101.ORG announcing that the decade-long fiasco had been a fraud. The pictures of Maver's supposedly fake corpses had actually been photos of real murder and rape victims found on, and the photos of Maver himself were actually of Blissett member Roberto Capelli. The project had been an "active riot" against the art world and its fealty to money, fame, and salability; Maver was "an essay of pure mythopoesis," an artificial structure who had been created to contain all of the implicit values of the art world but who wasn't actually there.

The name Luther Blissett itself was a gesture of rebelling against the corporate individualism of the 1980s and ’90s, turning a semi-famous soccer player who would become the first black person to play professionally in Italy into an umbrella identity for widespread pranks and cultural disfigurements. "It is necessary to get rid of the concept of In-dividuum, once and for all," the collective Blissett wrote of their work:

That concept is deeply reactionary, anthropocentric and forever associated with such concepts as originality and copyright. Instead, we ought to embrace the idea of a Con-dividuum, i.e., a multiple singularity whose unfolding entails new definitions of “responsibility” and “will,” and is no good for lawyers and judges.

In this context, the group's turn to historical potboilers was strange: it was a form seemingly created to move product and keep the corporate book publishing industry afloat with broad-appeal bedtime stories. Q dramatized the decades-long conflict between a nameless Anabaptist rebel who fights in uprisings against the papacy across Germany, while a spy from the church tries to infiltrate the conspirators and stop the various revolts from the inside. Altai returns to 16th-century Europe, telling the story of Emanuele de Zante, who works as an interrogation agent for the constable of Venice constantly searching for new plots against the church.

In the book's opening, an explosion is set off in the Venetian arsenal, and when de Zante's concubine reveals to the constable that he is secretly a Jew, he is blamed for the explosion and chased from Venice as an outlaw. De Zante's only salvation comes from Yossef Nasi, a Jewish counselor to Selim II in Constantinople, one of the most infamous criminals of the era, long suspected to have been agitating for war between the two nations. De Zante is given a new identity en route (Manuel Cardoso), taken into a world where his Jewishness will be an asset, and becomes committed to a plot with Nasi to conquer Cyprus and remake it as a sanctuary for beleaguered Jews across the Mediterranean.

In the 10 years between Q and Altai, Blissett lost a member and claimed a new identity for themselves, Wu Ming, the Chinese variation of "anonymous." Altai's plot circles around a similar absence of identity, with de Zante beginning as an impostor exposed and, through his journey east, discovering a hollowness in his own identity, a never-ending sequence of outer shells to be shed. "Flight was a chrysalis," Wu Ming writes of his flight from Venice, "but the caterpillar didn't turn into a butterfly, just a different caterpillar"

The first stop on the journey is de Zante's childhood home of Ragusa — present-day Dubrovnik — where he recalls his younger years, the son of a Jewish worker woman impregnated by an Italian sailor who summarily disappeared. De Zante remembers the inescapable hatred toward Jews he felt as a child: "I absorb the acrid sap like a plant, a weed grown in a field of sulfur." As a teenager, de Zante's father returned mysteriously and plucked his son from the stinking spite of the ghetto and took him to Venice, where he hid his Jewishness and soon found work in the city's security forces hunting outlaws.

In his childhood he had one role imposed on him by the hatefulness of his neighbors, and as a teen he was magically given the opposite identity, becoming an enforcer for the prevailing social standards of bigotry and repression. Returned to the rotten sinkhole of his youth, de Zante marvels at this own lack of identity, "Everything was possible, in the darkness that surrounded me, and I was nothing. For that very reason, I had hesitated to turn my back on myself. There was nothing true in me to turn it on."


"Man is the only creature who refuses to be what he is," Camus wrote in The Rebel. In the same way that Marx distills generational strife into historical material operating under its own laws, Camus reduces the pathos of the individual to potential energy for revolt, perpetually on the precipice separating what is tolerable from that which must be resisted. In Camus’s terms, de Zante's identity anxieties are potential energy waiting to be released in an act of rebellion, a gesture toward formulating a new identity by realizing one is trapped in a template that, once he is conscious of it, must be violently refused.

This self-awareness of what cannot be tolerated brings another riddle about the ethics of how exactly to rebel. Camus’s central question is “whether innocence, the moment it becomes involved in action, can avoid committing murder.” De Zante’s journey of renounced identity inevitably pushes him toward a massive act of violence with the looming war between Venice and Constantinople. Camus reminds us that ultimately all acts of rebellion hinge on our relationship to, and tolerance of, murder. “We shall know nothing until we know whether we have the right to kill our fellow men,” he writes, “or the right to let them be killed. In that every action today leads to murder, direct or indirect, we cannot act until we know whether or why we have the right to kill.”

In that way, de Zante’s journey is not just one of self-discovery but also one that makes self-discovery a pretext for presumptively ethical murder — a proposition the book’s plot slowly tests. Before de Zante fully grasps his unformed self, Wu Ming delivers him to Yossef Nasi in Constantinople, who will impose on him still another identity, one formed out of the great unifying power of fighting back against a historical wrong. "I'm not just content with transforming myself," he tells de Zante during their first meeting. "I want to transform a people. From weak to strong. From divided to united. From unwelcome guests to masters of their own destiny. From fugitives to protectors of the fleeing."

Nasi's identity has been subsumed by this insistence on freeing the Jews, and in a way his identity depends on the willingness of others to allow the cause to define them too. Nasi provides a decent model of Camus's rebel: "The act of rebellion carries him far beyond the point he had reached simply by refusing. […] What was at first the man's obstinate resistance now becomes the whole man, who is identified with and summed up in this resistance."

This theoretical persona provides a template for the book's conspiracy-laden plot, where characters all seem as if they are stand-ins for ideas, speaking on behalf of causes that will inevitably wind up in conflict with one another. The story takes on a parallax structure, filled with obsessive MacGuffins for de Zante to chase in the foreground, while the background slowly grinds along on its own uncontrollable pace. It gives the impression of watching an ant chase a snowflake across an ice flow: the immediate goal is always in view, surrounded by a grand and uncontrollable sense of foreboding and futility.

This structure works both as a political metaphor and as a mirror for literary culture. As the fame cult surrounding writers has intensified over the last hundred years, the idea that individual artistry — and even the concept of art itself — depends on epochal flows of history has long been forgotten. In our time, the idea that a fictional work be sprung from an ego-less collective is almost heretical. What is the point of fiction if not to celebrate the quicksilver of individual genius, the lone beacon able to momentarily pause history through the power of aphorism alone? Wu Ming’s work embraces the opposite approach, foregoing the notion of distinct talent and instead using storytelling as a form of historical acquiescence, a way of dissolving individual ego instead of hoping to amplify it.

The group's writing process is a relatively ordered form of collective labor, with their shared affinities for revolutionary politics and history drawing them to a general period and plot structure. Once the broad outline is in place, each member goes off and writes an individual chapter, which they present to the group, where it is debated, questioned, and improved upon. While it would probably be impossible to tell that Altai is the product of a group of people from the text alone, there is a jaggedness to its language and tonal shifts that makes perfect sense once that detail is known.

The book is composed of more than 80 short chapters, most only two or three pages, densely packed with historical names and observations. Reading them is like watching a series of slides through a pinhole, each subsequent entry continuing the story of the last while simultaneously feeling like an entirely new composition. The story does not flow smoothly from chapter to chapter, but rather feels like something that exists outside of the book, and with each new entry adds only a partial view of one aspect, leaving out as much as it manages to include.

At time the language is viscous and melodramatic, "Dawn came like a deliverance, after a dull, sleepless night. I raised my head and it was as if a homunculus had started hammering on it from the inside." Other times descriptions are pithy and vernacular — "I didn't sleep a wink" — or else modernist and fragmentary — "Rough streets, dark and encased. The houses looked as if they wanted to crush us." The tonal shifts are not so dramatic that they disrupt the reading experience, but there is always a faint impression of the style having changed without a clear signal to the reader.

Such incongruities become part of the book's power over time. One gets the sense this is not a novel concerned with literariness, but one that aspires to the creation of collective myths that are shared by people across time and culture. At times, it feels like a narrative cryptogram that promises to unlock some yet unseen truth in the reader's present conditions, which might leave them at the precipice of an irreversible act of rebellion.

Yet, there is an accompanying weariness to the book that keeps it from being some Izod-anarchist riot propaganda. Once Nasi's plot to take over Cyprus has gained momentum, the scarred and many-named hero of Q appears, part mentor to de Zante and part fixer for plot complications that require a callused hand. For his return, Wu Ming give their old siege-horse his final name, Ismail, the Biblical outcast thrown into the wilderness and deprived of his birthright. When the machinations of Nasi and de Zante have finally triggered the opening gestures of war, Ismail takes de Zante to Cyprus where he can witness the personal violence sprung from his courtroom strategizing.

Set during the Siege of Famagusta in 1571, de Zante arrives into the detritus of bodies and blood-thickened sea foam reaching their ship before they've even reached shore, where it "smelled of gunpowder and rotten wood, pitch and saltpeter. And of corpses, cooked by the sun and ravaged by violent death." The details are efficient but merciless reminders of warfare, where the victims of prolonged conflict simply lay where they had died for weeks and months, festering while newer deaths fell on top of them, slowly turning the serenity of a Mediterranean island into a toxic hellscape, with blood poisoning the fish and souring the soil for a generation to come. The siege ends with Nasi and de Zante's plan successful, though it comes with the horrible and graphically described flaying of the city's Venetian Captain-General, Marco Antonio Bragadin, who is skinned alive. Winning, in this world, is not to be confused with a happy ending, and Wu Ming does not give anyone a happy ending.

"Perhaps men like Yossef look too far back and see too far ahead," de Zante says, on the way to his own unavoidable end. "The present will always be a cage, for them and for the people who follow them." De Zante begins to realize the fixations on progress through dramatic narratives of injustice and historical vindication, creates a kind of logical trap that doesn't alleviate the suffering of the present but only complicates it by spreading it further.

This is the conundrum of rebellion against the present, making it necessary to transgress whatever remnant peace and good there is if an age to demonstrate an even better future is possible. Rebellion is, as Camus wrote, "the limit that can be reached but once, after which one must die. The rebel has only one way of reconciling himself with his act of murder if he allows himself to be led into performing it: to accept his own death and sacrifice. He kills and dies so that it shall be clear that murder is impossible."

So what is possible, if the present is intolerably unjust, and fighting against it only offers a different form of self-abrogation? Wu Ming leaves us with the figure of the book's title, a kind of falcon used to hunt, blinded by a leather cap while heightening its other senses, a creature that acquiesces to the will of its master only so long as he is fed his fair portion of the spoils, limited by mutual benefaction in the same way language limits and expands both reader and writer, forcing them into mutual acquiescence for the sake of soaring above themselves and returning to their perch at the end in some kind of exhausted peace.

Like their other books, reading Altai is a jarringly anti-literary experience, uneven and pulpy, but it's writing meant to not stand alone, language that wants to show its seams, not in the fashion of Sebald, Breton, or Danielewski, but in the service of the reader who does not want an altar of genius to pray at but instead takes language as a starting point for their own perambulations. Just as Luther Blissett had at one point more than 400 participants creating a wild flora of work, Wu Ming's writing wants to spawn its own ecosystem of differentiated forms, of which Altai is one strain, a starter culture meant to spawn mutations, negations, continuations.

Its lack of literary invention, its structure as historical pulp is a kind of submission to the reader, who should not be dominated by a writer's genius, but rather incorporated into it. In the same way that hunter and falcon are both subservient to a process larger than either of them, Altai is literature as a process of continuing and mutual need, a book that, in its ideal state would have as many writers as readers, each indistinguishable from the other, lives periodically passing through a shared medium and only ever returning when there is some newly felled prey to share with the other, the body of a creature that binds them together in momentary agreement over what it was that should be killed. 


Michael Thomsen is a writer living in New York.

LARB Contributor

Michael Thomsen is a writer in New York. His work has appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, Slate, Bookforum, and The New Inquiry, among others. He’s also author of the essay collection Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men, and contributed an essay to City by City: Dispatches Trom the American Metropolis.


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