Vulpes Libris

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.


AltaiIn 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.

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About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

8 comments on “Altai

  1. Andrew
    February 25, 2014

    One of my all-time favourite books is Q, by Wu Ming’s precursor personality Luther Blissett, and although I didn’t feel the same I know people who were put off by it in a way that sounds similar to your reaction to De Zante. The later stages of that book also sound somewhat familiar to the plot of this (Venetian Jews fled into the care of an Arabic benefactor), enough so that I wonder whether some of the characters carry over–and I’d check, if I hadn’t rearranged my bookshelves over the weekend and lost Q in the shuffle.

  2. Kate
    February 25, 2014

    It’s advertised as a sequel, but I got no sense that the characters had a back story that we were expected to know. Hang on, maybe there was one, a smuggler from Dubrovnik called Tuota?

  3. sshaver
    February 25, 2014

    Just thought others might be interested that VIDA has just released their “Dudesville” list of magazines that hire mostly male reviewers and review mostly male books.

    I think this site would not be on that list. But it still makes me mad.

  4. Kate
    February 25, 2014

    Hello? I wrote this review and I’m female! Were you meaning to say that you think Vulpes Libris ought not to review male authors? If not, perhaps you could explain what you did mean. Or if yes, I disagree. I’ll review who I want to. And I expect the other VL reviewers will want to review who they want to too. Although, it’s the books we’re reviewing, not the authors.

  5. rosyb
    February 25, 2014

    Kate – I think that Sshaver is just drawing our attention to the list and saying we wouldn’t be on it. Just a way of alerting us as a general rather than specific comment. (Forgive me if I’ve got that wrong, Sshaver).

    Thanks for the heads up, Sshaver. I think things are shifting and perhaps the internet is good like that as it seems to me there are a lot of women reviewers and books from female being reviewed on the blogs. But I’ll check it out – be interesting to see what it says.

  6. Leena
    February 25, 2014

    Thanks for the review, Kate! Shame – I was intrigued by this book, but it does sound like it’s lacking something.

    Makes me wonder how often books written by committee (as it were) are really, really good…? I confess I’d like to try that sort of thing once…

  7. Jackie
    February 25, 2014

    Thanks sshaver for the comment, though a bit random is still of interest. I’m glad that so many “Boy’s clubs” are getting called out on that nowadays. Gives me hope for the future.
    As to the book, I must say I love that cover. I am always baffled at how more than one person writes a book and keeps the continuity of style, so this would be interesting in that respect. I do like historical novels, but the characters for the most part sound very unsympathetic, so I’m not sure if I could follow their adventures. And of course I’d have to skip all that torture & violence. Ugh.
    I do think that the Jewish expulsion from parts of Europe in centuries past has always seemed like it could be a treasure trove of stories and wonder why more novels aren’t set in those events.

  8. Carol S
    February 26, 2014

    Richard Zimler explores the Jewish experiences very well. Always an interesting writer, often exemplary

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This entry was posted on February 25, 2014 by in Entries by Kate, Fiction in translation, Fiction: 21st Century, Fiction: historical and tagged , , , .



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