Verso 14.99 (396pp) 13.49 (free p&p) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Manituana, By Wu Ming (translated by Shaun Whiteside)
Friday 06 November 2009
As a literary project, it looks at first glance like a giggly stunt positioned in some mischief-making space midway between Monty Python and the Sex Pistols. In 2000, a quartet of cultural pranksters and gadflies from Bologna published Q, a historical novel of adventure and ideas set in the 16th century. They chose as their first sobriquet "Luther Blissett": improbably enough, the name of a Watford striker subject to racial abuse after a transfer to Italy to play at AC Milan. Following a quizzical reaction from the real-life Blissett, the group recruited a couple more anonymous writers, picked for their next incarnation "Wu Ming" "no name" in Mandarin and continued to develop a unique brand of intelligent period fiction, with 54 also translated into English.
The cabal's greatest, most mesmerising trick of all has been to fashion novels of true originality and page-riffling appeal. How do they do it? The official version speaks of the sturdy virtues of co-operative work, with each individually-authored section given close scrutiny by other members of the collective until a final draft pleases the whole pack. Whatever the hidden formula, a mystifying alchemy turned Q into a rattling, multi-levelled yarn of Protestant dissent and state conspiracy across Europe in the early decades of the Reformation: fans of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, grab it now. As for 54, it somehow conjoined the Italian underworld, Cold War intrigue, the failure of postwar idealism in Yugoslavia and a delicious cameo from Cary Grant.
Now Manituana takes us back to 1775, and the Indian lands of the "Six Nations" alliance in British north America. Once more twisting the lens of mainstream history so that marginal or forgotten figures and movements come into brilliantly sharp focus, Wu Ming tell the story of the gathering rebellion in the colonies mostly through the eyes of the Mohawk people loyal to King George III, the "Great English Father" across the seas. At the core of a sweeping, cinematic narrative, which pans between Indian village life, authentically grisly battle scenes, diplomatic manoeuvres in high places and even an extraordinary interlude in London, stands the real-life war chief, Joseph Brant. A Mohawk leader by skill rather than ancestry, he has forged a long and strong alliance with the ramifying clan of Sir William Johnson: the Irish Catholic "superintendent" of Indian affairs for the Crown.
Mohawk, mixed and European, Johnson's mingled brood of followers and relatives defend the hard-won harmony of the Iroquois federation against the inroads of insurgent white settlers who seek "the breakdown of the balance". The authors gleefully revise orthodox history to present the loyalist Mohawks as victims of canting, racist rebels who march into battle under banners such as "Civilisation and death to all savages". But there is nothing smug or glib about this rivetting reversal of two centuries and more of textbook and big-screen platitudes.
Brant and his people keep their side of a firm pact to support the Crown in spite of their outsider status. Indian warriors, Irish and Highlander Catholics, "Papists and pagans" alike fight for King George as "two tribes of masked men". But fight they do, in the face of British equivocations and compromises. Yet in one bloody and colourful skirmish after another, the Indian nations' "Longhouse" begins to crack under the rebel onslaught. George Washington and his raggle-taggle bands of chancers, predators and bigots so far from the upstanding heroes of America's deepest myth seek to drown an ancient culture in "lakes of tears and rivers of blood".
What saves the Wu Ming crew from romantic sentimentalism is a trademark sophistication about political ideas and their impact on both words and deeds. Philip, a French captive who has literally gone native to become the Mohawk's fiercest brave, reads Voltaire and Rousseau and reminds a patronising lady that "many European things are circulating in the American forests". Exploring this already hybrid world, Manituana dismantles the delusion of the simple "noble savage" as shrewdly as it debunks the usual patriotic pageantry of 1776 and all that.
A virtuoso middle section (again rooted in real events) sends Brant, Philip and Johnson's son-in-law to London, where they aim to reinforce the Indian alliance of equals with the Crown. Fawned over as a "ceremonial beast" in salons and palaces, Brant also brushes against the squalor and despair of the capital's poor. With a firework display of thieves' cant and gang jargon, an electrifying high point of Shaun Whiteside's swift but subtle translation, the "Mohocks of Soho" who actually existed hint at the grim underclass destiny that lies in store for defeated traditional peoples all around the world. Wu Ming do sometimes graft the preoccupations of today onto the events of yesterday. Philip, for example, has a vision of "a London as big as the world", where free-market individualism has gobbled up the planet and its once-proud communities. Mostly, however, Manituana shuns anachronism as it sets about delivering a fast-flowing, densely peopled, richly decorated story of a precious way of life, and thought, on the brink of the modern abyss. As for Wu Ming and their bewitching fictional fellowship, let's hope that many moons will pass before we see the last of these mysterious Mohicans.
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