Sunday, 15 September 2013

in The Catholic Herald, September 13, 2012

Cheap Thrills

Despite some great set-pieces this novel of the 16th century has no heart, says Patrick West

VERSO, £16.99

Wu Ming is not a real person, and the title of this historical novel is irrelevant (“altai” is a type of falcon, but like Trainspotting or Reservoir Dogs, it tells you nothing of the plot). With this in mind, the reader might expect a self-consciously postmodern book, it being the creation of a four-man collective of Italian anarchists. As it happens, Altai turns out to be a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure story set in the late 16th century, the backdrop being a war between the Ottoman Empire and forces loyal to the papacy.

When a fire breaks out in the Arsenal of Venice in 1569, everyone blames the arch-enemy of the Republic, the dastardly Giuseppe Nasi (“The Sultan’s favourite Jew” – a kind of Bin Laden bogeyman). But it is the city’s chief spymaster and torturer, Emmanuele De Zante, who is framed for the blaze, and accused of being a spy himself.

Having escaped jail, De Zante flees to the Balkans, rediscovers his own Jewish roots, heads on through Salonika to Constantinople, and ends up working with Nasi himself. With the patronage of Selim II, Nasi seeks ultimately to build a new Zion in Cyprus. A great religious war ensues when the Turks invade the island, reaching its terrible conclusion at the Battle of Lepanto.

Altai is the follow-up to the collective’s novel Q. Like its predecessor, it’s been a best-seller in Italy. It’s not hard to see why: Altai is gory, epic and sensual, constant with themes of love and betrayal. It’s written in the first person, present tense, in a staccato style that gives it irresistible momentum. At times it has the feel of a detective novel, with each terse chapter ending with a cliff-hanger worthy of Philip Marlowe or a 1970s cop show. (For example: “She left without a sound, leaving me prey to my obsessions, my eyes lost in the night.”)

Wu Ming’s underlying motive, of course, is political: to channel and echo the sentiments of Europe’s disillusioned youth, to the discontents and malcontents who feel betrayed by their elders and rulers. 

Corruption and deception are pervasive in Altai. Venice is a sordid state riddled with anti-semitism. The papacy is rapacious and cynical. The Ottoman Empire, while superficially tolerant and multicultural, is as scheming as its main foe: the Sultan fabricates a pretext for invading Cyprus – a nod, again, to real-life geopolitics.

Like a Sergio Leone film, there are no good guys or bad guys, and no redemption – only the inevitability and thrill of violence: “We fought for ages, acrid smoke and the smell of death filling our lungs … The clash dragged on in a hideous balance of death, attacking, retreating, gaining a few feet of ground, with shouts, curses prayers, insults, music, hissing arrows, roaring arquebuses, the smell of combusted bodies, of burnt wood”.
Throughout, De Zante agonises over his maternal religion, embracing then rejecting his Judaism in turn, seemingly condemned to be the wandering and wondering Jew. He is a man utterly self-absorbed with his identity, a veritable embodiment of Generation Me.

The success of this novel is a depressing sign of the times. Altai, in a perverse way, is a marvellous work, with its stirring pace, attention to historical detail and linguistic wordplay. (If you speak a Romance language you will understand the lingua franca spoken by its seamen: “Kon una barba blanka ke lo faze pareser un profeta.”) But it’s cheap thrills all the same. This book has neither heart nor feeling. It solicits no sympathy. In the end, I didn’t care what happened to the protagonists. There was no one I wanted to live and no one I wanted to die. How strange that such an immense piece of work can feel so hollow. 

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