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Wu Ming: 54 (54)

On the whole, the idea of a collectively-written novel does not appeal to me. However, there is already one other on this website and the Wu Ming collective have had a certain success in Italy. Thus novel works because it consists of several interrelated stories, presumably each story written by a different author, though I have no evidence for this.

According to their website on the book (in Italian), the novel is Un romanzo sulla dignità e sul parlare coi morti, tra guerra fredda, show biz ed economia politica dell’eroina [a novel about dignity and talking to the dead, amidst the Cold War, showbiz and the political economica of heroin], which is certainly one way of summing it up. As the title tells us, it is set primarily in 1954 and we follow several stories which are separate but do, to some degree, link up with one another. The stories all feature both real people as well as fictional ones.

There are several key issues hovering in the background. The first is Trieste. During the war, Trieste and its inhabitants suffered. Many Slovenes were sent off to concentration camps as were Jews. Trieste was occupied by the Italian Fascists, by the Germans, Yugoslav partisans, the New Zealanders, an Anglo-American force and, finally, a US force, nominally under the protection of the United Nations, with the area around Trieste divided into Zones A and B. The Free Territory of Trieste was in Zone A. Though it was called the Free Territory of Trieste, in this book, it is pointed out that it was anything but free as US forces brutally repressed all opposition. This is a separate story but is also mentioned in other stories.

Related to this is the situation of Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia had broken away from the Soviet Union and, since then (1953), Stalin had died. The West wants to try and entice Tito, president of Yugoslavia, to lean towards the West rather than towards the Soviet Union. This issue comes up in more than one story.

The novel starts at the end of the war. Italian troops have captured Slovenian partisans and are planning to execute them. However, the Italian soldiers refuse to do so, killing their officer and releasing the partisans. Some of the Italians go off to join the partisans. One of the stories is related to this issue. It is set in Bologna. Italy is under the control of the Christian Democrats, who have been helped to power by the US and who have often pardoned former Fascists and even given them high positions. (The Wu Ming authors do not hide their sympathies and they are not with either the Christian Democrats nor the Imperial West, as represented by the US and UK.) However, Bologna is communist and many of the communists there hang out in the Aurora Bar, run by the son, Nicola, of one of the Italian soldiers we saw shooting the officer and joining the Yugoslav partisans. Nicola is called Nicola after Lenin. (Trivial note: Lenin adopted the initial N. when he called himself Lenin. Many people thought (incorrectly) that the N. stood for Nikolai).

His younger brother, Pierre (actually called Robespierre), who works in the bar is a key character here. Pierre wants to find his father. They had been in touch but the letters had stopped coming and Pierre plans to sneak into Yugoslavia to find him. His life, however is complicated by his affair with Angela. Angela came from a poor background but had married an older man, Odoacre Montroni. Montroni is both a respected doctor and a a respected senior member of the local communist party, so Pierre is running a great risk. Moreover, Montroni has been very good in looking after Angela’s brother who is suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder, so she is not about to leave her husband for Pierre. Pierre sets out for Yugoslavia and his journey is part of the continuing story.

Three stories very much feature real characters. Originally, they intended to write a story about Gary Cooper, as he was the favourite of women fans. However, the name was written as GC and then misread as CG, so Cary Grant took his place. In 1954 Grant was on his third (and longest) marriage (of five). However, he had also quit showbiz. The films he had made recently were not successful, so he decided to focus on his business interests. In this novel, there are two attempts to woo him back to film-making. The first is from Alfred Hitchcock, who had featured Grant in previous films. He considered Grant for Rear Window but later gave the role to James Stewart. In this novel we see Grant reading the script for To Catch a Thief. He does not like it but is interested in the idea of working with Grace Kelly. He will later decide to do it and, indeed, we see part if the making of the film.

The other attempt to woo him back comes from MI6. They want him, as a patriotic duty, to make a film about the Yugoslav partisans in the war, knowing that Tito is an enthusiastic fan of Cary Grant. They hope, by doing this, to have Tito more supportive of the West. It cannot really be done in the US, because of the House Un-American Activities hearings. We follow Grant’s adventures on this mission, which, though he is now a US citizen, he agrees to undertake.

A second story features one real character: General Serov, new head of the KGB. He is a committed Soviet and, when he gets wind of MI6’s plan with Cary Grant, he is determined to put a stop to it.

The third story featuring a real character involves Salvatore Lucania, better known as Lucky Luciano, the second best-known Italian-American gangster. He has been deported from the US and sent back to his native Italy, though having been in the US since he was a child. He misses the US. Now back in Italy, he is determined to continue his business activities and we find him as one of the largest heroin dealers in Europe, if not the largest. His assistant is Stefano Zollo, better known as Steve Cement because he was very good at giving concrete boots/overcoats to Mafia victims, before dumping their bodies in the East River. Zollo has now decided to go freelance, and help himself to some of Luciano’s heroin for his retirement pension.

The final character of note is not, in fact, a human being but a TV set. It was made in 1953 by McGuffin Electric, near Pittsburgh. (MacGuffin/McGuffin is, of course, a term invented by Alfred Hitchcock for a plot device which serves no other purpose than to push the plot along. This is certainly the case with this McGuffin.) The TV set gets stolen more than once and sold more than once and travels around Italy, not least because no-one can get it to work in Italy. However, the TV observes and reports (to us) what is going on.

As I mentioned, these seemingly separate stories collide in various unexpected ways which enhances the fun of reading this novel. Indeed, some of the stories can best be said to collide towards the end of the novel. With a huge cast of characters, real and fictitious, great story-telling, unexpected twists, insights into Italy and Yugoslavia and US, UK and Italian politics in 1954 and forthright opinions on what is going on, this novel does work despite or because of the collaborative approach.

Publishing history

First published by Einaudi in 2002
First English translation by Heinemann in 2005
Translated by Shaun Whiteside