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

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn