54 By Wu Ming

Everyone wants to be Cary Grant. Even President Tito...
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The Independent Culture

Pierre Capponi, a bartender and king of the filuzzi dancers in Bologna, decides to search for his father, who has fled to Yugoslavia as a political refugee. In the course of his quest, his path crosses that of historical characters such as Lucky Luciano, who is setting up a drug-trafficking operation in Naples, and, to Pierre's utter disbelief, Cary Grant.

Everyone wants to be like Cary Grant, "the perfect prototype of Homo atlanticus". It is something that unites the proletariat and bourgeoisie. Pierre copies his walk and has "almost perfected his way of keeping his hands in his pockets". Archibald Leach, the actor who became Cary Grant, impersonates his own persona. As the intrigues of the Cold War become more intense and MI6 tries to bring Yugoslavia onside, Tito uses his leverage to demand a meeting with the screen idol.

This cultured comedy focuses on America's influence on Europe, and Italy in particular. Steve "Cement" Zollo, a homicidal gangster from New York who works for Luciano, acquires Salvatore Pagano, a Neapolitan youngster, as a sidekick. Salvatore lands a bit part in To Catch a Thief, which Hitchcock is filming in Cannes, all the while mistaking the director for Winston Churchill.

A TV set that doesn't work because it's stuffed full of hidden heroin is not a particularly subtle metaphor for America, but it is beautifully handled. The McGuffin Electric deluxe model spent the first weeks of "his life" in a home in Baltimore, where he broadcast the news of Stalin's death. Further sensational scoops are followed by disappointment: "He didn't match the Swedish furniture." McGuffin is sold to the army, which deploys him at the allied military base in Naples before he is passed on to a bar in Bologna. When McGuffin can't produce a picture, he reflects the faces of disillusioned viewers.

54 is similarly scathing about the ideologues on the Soviet side. In one interior monologue, Tito recalls arguing with an apparatchik who held that mirrors stimulate "petty-bourgeois narcissism". To which Tito replies: "So how do you trim your moustache, by leaning over puddles?" In Moscow, the head of the newly formed KGB comes up with a plan to embarrass Tito over his counter-revolutionary ambitions regarding Cary Grant.

The authorial omniscience, satirical tone and historical veracity might seem quaint coming from a band of anarchists. Yet by the collective nature of its fluent voice, Wu Ming subverts traditional literary norms. In contrast with those Structuralist and Marxist academics who have produced reams of speculative theories on the death of the solitary auteur, Wu Ming has acted.