A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In another review of Altai by Wu Ming, novelist Ian Sansom said that we tend to forget that historical fiction is experimental, because it’s inventing a past, and messing around with history. I’d add to that: historical fiction is a very demanding form, because we expect total realism and total fantasy from it at the same time. Altai is set in 16th-century Venice and Constantinople and points in between. The four Italian novelists and self-styled cultural terrorists (who in an earlier and slightly different configuration called themselves Luther Blissett) who are the collective author Wu Ming thus need to be on top of their game for writing a novel set in the history, culture, biography, food, politics and interior decoration of 16th-century Venice and Constantinople. Overlying all that, they have to convince the reader that 16th-century Sephardic Jewish culture is what they say it is, and the history of Jewish expulsions and settlement throughout Europe is also as it is in the novel. Perhaps it’s useful that there are four in the collective: they can specialise, or at least edit out bloopers by the others.
Many reviews of this novel described it as ‘unputdownable’. Let’s make allowances for the limited vocabulary that reviewers are allowed to use by their sub-editors, and cut out the hyperbole. I had no trouble at all putting this novel down to eat, sleep, or go to work. I sometimes had trouble picking it up again to continue reading because it did not hold my interest particularly strongly, but, well, I wanted to read the collective’s work, and this novel certainly isn’t bad. Altai is very good in many ways. The historical description is detailed and very persuasive, so I drank down the interior decoration of a Turkish palace, and ports and harbours with pleasure, and I enjoyed the remarks on gardening. I averted my eyes from most of the copious descriptions of filth, torture and bloodshed, because there is only so much of that that I need to read to get the idea. Perhaps the collective was keen to impress upon the readers the brutality and cruelty of the 16th century, but I didn’t need the confirmation. I really did like the extensive underlay of Jewish culture and the changes that the protagonist De Zante went through as he worked through his ambivalence about identity, and whether he was Jewish or Venetian. Overall, the strongest story in the novel is that to be Jewish is always to be Jewish, and what a wonderful influence on history they could have had had they been allowed to flourish in peace without persecution.
And yet, and yet … I felt a strange lack of warmth in this novel. There is a hole in the centre of the story, occupied by De Zante. He rejects love and tempers devotion with resentment. Every relationship he has is tarnished with graft or betrayal, or a refusal to admit friendship in case betrayal will follow. He suffers a lot, but the poor man seems to have no likings, no passion or fondness for anything or anyone. He is valuable because he can tell the Turks things about Venice that they need to know in their plans for Cyprus, so his comfortable life in the second half of the novel rests on a cushion of betrayal, because he has not yet realised where his loyalties truly lie. He’s a cold and cross man, and I disliked him extremely. The true heart of the story is Yussef Nasi, a great Jewish politician and philanthropist in the court of Selim II. Nasi is beloved by his loyal friends and loves Judaism so much that he spends without restraint on a fleet and arms, and risks his life trying to make a Jewish homeland. His mentor Ismail has his own devoted followers, including an Indian brother and sister who are terrifying fighting machines. Nasi and Ismail apparently loved an older lady of great intelligence and insight, Donna Gracia, but she’s dead, so we can’t see this for ourselves. Nasi does not love his wife Reyna: this may be because Nasi prefers men, but is more likely that she is plotting against him with the ladies in the Harem. De Zante throws off his lover Dana because he realises that she is drugging and betraying him. These instances are the only evidence we see of an apparent female network plotting to subvert Nasi’s machinations, a plot point that is crucial on paper, but has little grip on the narrative. It is so slight as to feel like an experiment that got forgotten. The only live women (except the Indian warrior who is always presented as boylike and masculine) in the plot are betrayers: the revered, adored and beloved women in the story are dead. The love in this novel is between men, and from memories (not all of them real) of women.
The title Altai comes from the name of a hybrid hawk, and is intended to signify Yussef Nasi. But Altai, being mostly told in De Zante’s voice, is far too much about the Venetian’s inner anger and not nearly enough about the Jew’s generosity and hope. Nasi had warmth in abundance: he ought to have been the focus of the story, not the crabbed De Zante who never seems able to enjoy life. The skewedness of the narrative – in whom the protagonist is or ought to have been, of whose perspective is told and whose is ignored – might be part of Wu Ming’s experimentation, because it did not give me what I expected. I didn’t much like what I got instead, though I applaud the project, and admire the historical knowledge and reconstruction that made this novel.
Wu Ming, Altai (2009 Giulio Einaudi editore s.p.a.; 2013 Verso), translated by Shaun Whiteside, £8.99, $16.95; 978-1-78168-167-1
Find out more about the Wu Ming collective here.
Kate podcasts about books that she really, really likes on http://www.reallylikethisbook.com.