Among the Believers
Is a book about reading a book really a book or a joke?
Reviewed by David Liss
Sunday, May 23, 2004; Page BW07
Q. By Luther Blissett
Translated from the Italian by Shaun Whiteside
Harcourt. 750 pp. $26
Among historical novels, perhaps the most specialized category is the subgenre of books that invite comparisons to Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Works legitimately placed in this group ought to provide an engaging mixture of intellectual history and exciting skullduggery, and they should probably involve the Church, or at least individual members of the clergy. A book of Italian origins gets extra points, so it is no surprise that Q by Luther Blissett, a novel detailing plots and counterplots during the peasant wars of the Protestant Reformation, should draw such comparisons. Q is like The Name of the Rose in another important way -- it is structured as an elaborate inside joke, and those who don't get it will be unlikely to finish it.
The premise is undeniably captivating. In the violence that erupts in the years following Martin Luther's nailing of his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg, the narrator -- a radical Protestant soldier with no name but many pseudonyms -- wanders across Europe. Sometimes knowingly and passionately, and sometimes haphazardly, he involves himself in various Protestant uprisings and plots. All the while his efforts are thwarted by a mysterious agent of the Inquisition known only as Q. The story spans decades and countries, and by the last third of the novel, the competing goals of the narrator and Q have turned into a chess game of espionage.
It sounds great, but readers should be aware going in that Q is more of an anti-novel than a novel. It was written by a quartet of anonymous Italians who come from a collective of self-described "cultural terrorists" known as the Luther Blissett Project. While not collaboratively writing texts of various sorts (most of which, including Q itself, are available for free download from their web page (www.wumingfoundation.com), the members of the LBP seem to enjoy such pranks as stealing church statues or hijacking city buses on which to hold raves. Their pseudonym, Luther Blissett, derives from the name of a British soccer player from the '80s whose career took a downturn when he went to play in Milan. I know virtually nothing about European soccer, so the joke of the name is lost on me, as it will invariably be on most Americans. It is, I suppose, the equivalent of trying to tour Europe with a rock band called the Bill Buckner Experience.
Excluded from the jokes surrounding the origins of the book, the American reader must take the novel on its own terms, and those terms are both good and bad. At its best, Q displays an impressive knowledge of the Reformation, its ideas and its principal actors. It is a historical novel of the grand and sweeping sort, one that aims to capture not a life or a moment, but an era of pivotal importance. The authors have gone to great lengths to include information about important figures of the Reformation -- Luther, Philipp Melanchthon and John Calvin -- as well as some significant sites of Protestant foment, including the heady events at Munster and the disaster of Thomas Muntzer's revolt at Frankenhausen.
The nameless narrator relates most of these events, and Q himself relates others, mostly through letters to his master, but toward the end of the book in some revealing diary entries as well. The narrator begins the novel as a true believer, but after a series of defeats and betrayals, he becomes cynical, drifting from one Protestant enclave to another, stumbling upon history again and again. It is here, with the characters, that the book is much less effective than it is with its history. It is hard to call this observation a criticism, because it seems that the authors have worked hard to keep the reader at a distance from the narrative. Like the rest of the characters in the novel, the narrator speaks in a modern voice peppered with contemporary and often juvenile slang. It is distracting, and I suspect purposely so, for characters in a novel set in 16th-century Europe to call the police "cops" and each other "dickhead." The authors also enjoy jarring the reader with short paragraphs of incoherent ideas:
"Looking for Titian."
"What I have to do."
The modern slang and the choppy style don't seem to fit the intellectual ambitions of the novel. The authors refuse -- and, again, I suspect this move is deliberate -- to dwell on the material life of the time or to try to give readers a sense of the physical reality of living in the past. And the characters, like the physical spaces, are never quite there. Most of the secondary figures are flat, forgettable and interchangeable, and the narrator himself is a cipher. He tells the reader about his apathy and ambivalence, yet strives onward from plot to plot, motivated mostly by the love of drink and whoring. He never gets too old to be desired by beautiful young women, and there's not a woman in the book who is not a desirable wench. All of these obstacles combine to dampen interest and slow the pace. It may be the worst sort of damning with faint praise to say that Q seems to pick up a bit after the first 450 pages, but I wondered if the authors ever wanted the story to pick up at all.
Q gives the reader the distinct impression of purposefully exposing the clichéd conventions of the historical novel and also throwing them in the reader's face. Be aware, it wants to say, that you are reading a book. The last third involves a plot to disseminate "The Benefit of Christ Crucified," a radical text designed to subvert Catholic doctrine. It is hard not to read the book's fixation on a book through a postmodern lens. The novel is artifice, we are led to believe, and narrative is constructed, just another shadow cast by ideology. This is really a book about a book, about books and reading. Get it?
The real question, of course, is: So what? Novelists should question the conventions of their work, and it is productive and interesting to see those conventions bent, broken and exposed, but Q's postmodern nose-thumbing has nothing terribly original in it. It exposes nothing about the conventions of the novel and storytelling that Laurence Sterne didn't point out when he wrote Tristram Shandy in the 1760s, when the English novel as an art form was only a few decades old.
In 1995 the cultural terrorists of the Luther Blissett Project created a media frenzy when they planted the story that an artist named Harry Kipper had disappeared during a trans-Europe bicycle trip. It was a joke. There is no such person as Harry Kipper, and one can only presume that the members of the LBP laughed and laughed while those bumbling law enforcement officers tried to rescue this figment of their imagination. Interestingly, Q has enjoyed bestseller status throughout Europe. I can only wonder if the authors are laughing. •
David Liss is the author of three novels, most recently "A Spectacle of Corruption."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company