A Week in Books: An ingenious comedy-thriller, packed with clever gags

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The Independent Culture

Yesterday, Tony Blair outlined his blueprint for Europe. One private corner of this vision clearly involves spending vacation after vacation in lovely parts of Italy. Long may the master of the political bella figura continue to enjoy il bel paese. But, next time he packs for Tuscany or Sardinia, he may wish to take along an Italian novel newly published here. It's a droll, ingenious comedy-thriller, packed with clever gags and boasting a cast that includes Alfred Hitchcock, Marshal Tito and - in pride of place - the supremely dapper Cary Grant. Perfect holiday reading, some might think. Then again, since it also tries to explain how Europe's postwar quest for social justice was thwarted by rampant consumerism and a surrender to American power - some might not.

To grasp the background to 54 by "Wu Ming" (Heinemann, £16.99), you need a familiarity with the curious story of the Italian anarchists, the Watford striker and the improbable bestseller. In the 1980s, an informal network of political activists and pranksters in Bologna began to ascribe their stunts to "Luther Blissett". They did so out of solidarity with the British footballer, a high-scoring forward for Watford who moved to AC Milan and promptly turned into a low-scoring forward - because of racism, the lads believed.

Then, in 1999, "Luther Blissett" released a novel. And not just any novel: Q, co-authored by four of the Bologna gang, proved bafflingly good - and bafflingly consistent for an eight-handed co-production. A full-throttle, Umberto Eco-style intellectual swashbuckler, set in the Reformation era, it suggested parallels between the defeat of revolutionary Protestantism and the downfall of the contemporary left. Q delighted readers all over Europe - if not the peeved but stoical Mr B.

Now, the Blissett boys have acquired a fifth member and a new moniker: "Wu Ming" means "no name" in Mandarin. Snappily translated by Shaun Whiteside, 54 takes place over that single year, half a century ago. At this crucial turning-point - so the novel claims - Italy's and Europe's hopes of radical change foundered in the face of Hollywood escapism, lifestyle dreams, Cold War intrigues and the might of the US-backed elites.

In one corner of the plot, a bunch of Partisans and Communists who hang out in a Bologna café drift away from revolutionary idealism and into dodgy deals with Mafia-connected thugs: the first steps down the primrose path to Berlusconi-dom. In Hollywood, a bored Cary Grant - "an English proletarian imprisoned in the body and the myth of the most stylish man in the world" - is lured out of his gilded cage by British intelligence. They want him to star in a film of Tito's wartime exploits that will help pull Yugoslavia towards the West. Nimbly tied, the twin strands come together - with the KGB - on an Adriatic island...

There's much more in the same vein, just as daft and just as delicious. In Naples, Lucky Luciano tightens his grip on the Mob, and nation: "What is the Italian state? Can you eat it?" In Cannes, Hitchcock films To Catch a Thief with a re-invigorated Grant. And a stolen American TV shuttles across Italy, the symbol of a new square-eyed epoch (when media-framed life will be "one big joke") and a device that binds one far-fetched yarn to another. Its manufacturer is - of course - the McGuffin Electric Company of Pittsburgh.

Don't ask me just how the Wu Ming clan have pulled off this second coup. I only know that their blend of outrageous burlesque and offbeat satire sparkles like a bottle of the best prosecco from a workers'-coop vineyard. Behind all the thrillerish buffoonery, 54 wants to show how Italian workers - like Europeans everywhere - preferred to seek their Utopia not on the streets but on the screen, or the shelves. And, as many contented readers will notice this summer, on the beach as well.