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Wu Ming on Altai and the political subjectivity of writing as a collective

The Italian socialist authors' sequel to Q has finally been translated into English after a four year wait. James Legge meets half of their number

Authors aren’t really supposed to discourage people from attending their promotional talks. But when informed by a fan via Twitter that one of the few events that Wu Ming – a group of four Italian writers who work under a collective pseudonym - had scheduled in London to promote their new book clashed with an anti-fascist march, Wu Ming tweeted back: "Don't worry, we'll record it. Go to the demo, it's f*****g important, smash the BNP (and the EDL)."

The intensely political Bolognese foursome recognise no separation between their literature and their political ideas. And so it is while promoting their latest historical novel, Altai - a story of betrayal, intrigue and war between the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire, set mostly in Constantinople and Cyprus.

The story starts on 23 June 1569 or, as it is also introduced, 8 Muharran 977, in the Islamic calendar. This mirrors the constantly shifting boundaries and labels throughout. Characters and places change names depending on the speaker’s mother tongue, and identities are just as fluid and malleable as the authors’ own.

I meet Wu Ming 1 and Wu Ming 2 - the authors use pen names based on the alphabetical order of their surnames - at London hotel bar. They say they struggle to talk about the finer details of Altai's plot, because they have forgotten much of it in the busy four years since they wrote it, waiting for the English translation to arrive.

"We place many different labels on things," says Wu Ming 1 (real name Roberto Bui). "We say you can look at this event from this point of view or from another one, because history is still contended, it’s still controversial. And you can convey a sense of controversy and radical difference in approach even in these little choices. Every character belongs to two different worlds, or three.”

Characters like the Ottoman courtier Yosef Nasi - or Guiseppe Nasi in Italy and João Micas in Portugal - who, like most of the book's characters, really existed. An eminent Jew, he had dreams of setting up a Jewish community on Cyprus. When the narrator, the Venetian spycatcher Manuel de Zante, is betrayed by his bosses as a Jew, it is Nasi who saves him and folds him into his own plans.

"That’s the fascinating thing about the Ottoman Empire and southern Europe in those days - everything was multifarious," says Wu Ming 1. "The two civilisations were connected, they were intertwined with each other. And these characters are the evidence of that. The battle of Cyprus is often depicted, especially by the Italian far right, as the moment that we defeated Islam, and it’s described as a clash of civilisations as though those two civilisations were two solid blocks," he says, punching his fists together in demonstration of his point.

"But instead they were two fluid blocks merging with each other, contaminating each other, cross-fertilising. It’s a critique of the powers-that-be."

Criticising the establishment is, it seems, Wu Ming's main motivation. Their very existence is a rejection of individualism. As well as providing more fun and less writers' block, Wu Ming 1 says writing as a group allows the foursome to be "a political subjectivity.”. He says: “We are a collective and being a collective is important. We live in a society where people are constantly pushed into individualism, into being in your little pigeon hole.”

Wu Ming 2 adds: "Literature is the right field for the statement 'We can do things together, we can write together.’” At this point, apparently coincidentally, he removes his heavy grey jumper to reveal a red t-shirt which reads "Luther Blissett = legend" – it is a nod to Wu Ming’s beginnings with the Luther Blissett Project, a group which spanned many countries and art forms, and under whose name the original five (Wu Ming 3 has since left the group) released Q, to which Altai is a loose sequel.

Wu Ming 1 continues: "The figure of the writer is marketed as an individual genius, a character that you can see in talk shows on the telly, you can find in the pages of a newspaper giving his or her opinion on pretty much anything. And usually writers, especially novelists, will write about anything. They don’t know f**k all about it, but they give their high opinion on it."

Wu Ming, he says, is at pains to avoid becoming this kind of persona - rejecting all television appearances and refusing to have their photographs taken: "So every detail of our public persona is a negation of that kind of celebrity-making machine that is the publishing industry, and more generally the cultural industry nowadays."

The collective puts out as much non-fiction as fiction, with their radical political blog Giap, which started in 2000, among the most-visited sites in Italy. "We want to tell stories by any means necessary," says Wu Ming 1. “So we can choose fiction, non-fiction, it depends. There are some things that can be said in a better and more effective way with fiction, and others that can be said in a better way by non-fiction."

"And others," interrupts Wu Ming 2, "in a better way, with action.

"The powers-that-be use many weapons, so you have to fight with many weapons."

Altai by Wu Ming is out now