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Wu Ming: Altai (Altai)

Our hero is Emanuele De Zante. When we first meet him, he is in charge of the police/secret service in sixteenth century Venice. There has been an attack on the Arsenal and of course the Turks are suspected. De Zante and his men investigate and soon come to the conclusion that the Turks are not to blame. It looks increasingly as though it is disgruntled workers who have not received the pay increases they think they deserve.

De Zante takes his findings to his superior, Consigliere Nordio. Nordio is not satisfied. He wants a high profile culprit, one not with high-placed friends. A Jew would be the obvious solution. De Zante heads off to see his mistress and soon finds out that his secret is out. He thought it was not known but he is, in fact, Jewish.

His mother was Sarah and she lived in Ragusa (now Dubrovnik). His father was, according to Sarah, Gioanbattista De Zante, an unknown sailor. When his mother dies, he eventually finds out that his father is, in fact, still alive and a man of some importance, so much so that he was not in a position to marry Sarah but could still help his son. Gioanbattista took his son to Venice where he rose through the ranks to his current position. But now he has been betrayed and he knows, if he is caught, he will be tortured and executed by the men whom he trained.

Before his father reappeared in his life, De Zante had been a smuggler with a man he called Tuota. He now seeks him out and it is Tuota who, reluctantly, still bitter at De Zante’s alliance with Venice, helps him flee to Ragusa. Ragusa is independent but Venice has a lot of influence there, so when De Zante foolishly leaves the lodgings, he is not entirely surprised to find himself in a cell, aching all over.

The enemy of Venice, and the one initially blamed for the Arsenal attack, is Giuseppe Nasi – the Swine of Judah, the Sultan’s Catamite, the Archenemy of La Serenissima. It is because of him that Nordio sought a Jewish culprit. It is now Nasi and his men who rescue De Zante. In more exciting adventures, he manages to escape Ragusa and, avoiding the Venetian fleet, travelling overland to Constantinople.

Nasi, of course, knows De Zante’s background and know that he is a good spy. However, De Zante cannot expect just to become a spy overnight, so we follow his apprenticeship but we also follow the domestic and foreign Ottoman political situation. Inevitably there are wheels within wheels, internal political rivalries and plots and counter-plots. Nasi has an agenda. He wants a Jewish homeland but not in Palestine. Much of the latter part of the book is about his attempt to get this homeland, which is currently under Venetian control, with a view to him becoming Emperor of this homeland. De Zante is, inevitably, much involved.

While a lot of the book is about the ins and outs of Venetian and Ottoman politics, a key theme is the treatment of Jews in sixteenth century Europe. The Jews have been persecuted in Europe since time immemorial and the sixteenth century was no different. In this book, we see Venice taking a strong stance against them. It is De Zante’s Jewish origins that caused his downfall in Venice. Despite their opposition to the Ottoman Empire, the Venetians seem to see the Jews, as represented by Nasi, as the main enemy, as much if not more than the Ottomans.

Nasi is very rich and very influential in the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans are clearly more tolerant of the Jews than the Venetians. Indeed, they generally seem to be much more what we would now call multicultural. Their Grand Vizier is, as we learn, of Serbian origin, albeit a convert to Islam. Nasi has done a lot to help Jews around Europe, rescuing them from persecution and bringing them to Constantinople, where they are looked after. This is the basis for his desire to have a Jewish homeland.

Everything and everybody clashes, with De Zante caught in exciting, complicated but not always successful adventures. The Ottomans and the Venetians fight. There is lots of blood and gore and the ending is not immediately obvious. While the book clearly has a serious intent, it is great fun, with swashbuckling, bravery, dirty politics, clever technological inventions but also also with cruelty, and all the other effects of war. However, you will not be bored reading this book.

First published by Einaudi in 2009
First English translation by Verso in 2013
Translated by Shaun Whiteside