Wu Ming Interview

Guerrilla Novelists

By Stewart Home

Wu Ming, Altai cover

Wu Ming is a collective of cultural activists based in Bologna. They are best known for their novels but they also write non-fiction and are involved with music too. Wu Ming means anonymous in Chinese and was chosen because the group is opposed to the cult of celebrity authors. Although they do book promotion tours, they don’t allow photos of themselves to be published. Verso is about to issue their fifth collectively penned novel Altai in English.

The narrator of Altai is Emmanuele De Zante, a sixteenth-century Venetian spy catcher who finds himself accused of being a double agent. De Zante goes on the run and after rediscovering his abandoned Jewish identity, he makes a strategic allegiance with Venice’s Ottoman enemy in the hope of establishing a Jewish homeland. The historical setting is accurate and parallels various geopolitical conflicts in the world today.

After flying in from London, I met Wu Ming 1 and Wu Ming 4 at the Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna; also present was Riccardo Balli, a breakbeat DJ and record producer. I’ve known all of them since the 1990s through various underground cultural-cum-political projects. Wu Ming 2 wasn’t due to join the meeting but I had been expecting Wu Ming 5. Wu Ming 1 apologised for the absence – Wu Ming 5’s punk band Nabat were playing a gig in Spain. Music is important to the entire collective and I noticed that Wu Ming 1 had the latest issue of Musica Jazz magazine in his hand. His book New Thing (2004), and the CD compilation The Old New Thing: A Free Jazz Anthology (2007), testify to his passion for musicians such as Albert Ayler and Sun Ra. He told me that his CD irked free-jazz diehards because of the way it was mixed, and he was clearly very happy about this.

When I mentioned Altai Wu Ming 1 laughed: “The translations take so long to appear! We haven’t talked about that book for years. It’s from 2009. We’ll have to speak about it again when we go to London for the UK publication.” After a little more conversation both Wu Mings seemed to have rekindled their interest in their old work and asked me if I understood the parallels between the historical world Altai deals with and the political situation today. I told them this wasn’t a problem for me but I quickly gave up trying to disentangle their fiction from historical fact because the two were so closely interwoven. There was a gleam in Wu Ming 1’s eye when he replied: “That’s because we worked the fiction into tiny historical cracks.”

The Wu Mings went on to tell me that they’re both happy with the reception of their collectively written novels in England and France. They stressed that the literary and political elements are of equal importance, and they clearly don’t like it when their books are discussed purely in terms of one or the other. Wu Ming 4 was particularly unhappy about a translation of his solo novel Stella del mattino (2008; ‘Star of the Morning’ – not available in English) being promoted as metafiction. The book may feature a number of famous English language writers as characters, but it also has a political content the Wu Mings don’t want ignored.

When we moved on to a café a few streets away from the museum, Wu Ming 1 suggested I might want to drink tea. When I opted for a double espresso, DJ Balli, who’d clocked that this was what I’d been drinking in the museum café, observed strong coffee was a common addiction in British counterculture. He went on to describe how when he was on tour with English noise musician Nomex, his DJ partner would drink a dozen double espressos a day. His anecdote about a figure we’d all known in the 1990s led us back to the underground culture from which Wu Ming emerged.

There are currently four members in the Wu Ming collective; there were once five but Wu Ming 3 left the group in 2008. Prior to Wu Ming, the collective were key players in the Luther Blissett Project (LPB). Luther Blissett was a name taken from an English footballer (who played for A.C. Milan) and starting in 1994 it was used by hundreds of cultural activists to play pranks on the capitalist media. The main purpose of the LBP might be summarised as the creation of a folk hero for the Internet age, so that its precarious workers could recognise each other and organise themselves.

Before they became Wu Ming in 2000, the group authored the bestselling novel Q (1999) as Luther Blissett. Altai resurrects a character from Q and moves the narrative forward historically. Altai was the first book the collective wrote after the departure of Wu Ming 3, and in order to move forward and deal with this change they returned to their roots.

Even after making the bestseller lists with their books, Wu Ming remain close to old friends and comrades who aren’t known outside various underground scenes. The ease with which DJ Balli (AKA Sonic Belligerence) interacts with them demonstrates this. Back in the 1990s Balli ran the Association of Autonomous Astronauts Bologna (for an independent proletarian space exploration programme), which had close links to the LBP.

When Wu Ming 4 had to leave, Wu Ming 1 and DJ Balli took me on a tour of Bologna bars. At each boozer, Wu Ming 1 greeted numerous friends, while as we walked he gave me a potted history of Bologna based on the buildings we passed. He pointed out the juvenile prison, and observed it is particularly cruel that the inmates should have to listen to people having a good time in city centre bars while they are locked up inside it. While we drifted we also managed to discuss Italian mondo and crime movies of the 1960s and 70s.

When I mentioned the way Altai addresses technology, Wu Ming 1 explained how much research the sections dealing with the recoil on cannons required, a subject no one in the collective had any knowledge of when they started work on the book. That said, it’s also evident that this interest in historical technology and its impact on past political struggles is meant to resonate with technological changes today. Likewise, passages that continue the collective’s interest in the development of print technology and clandestine publishing first depicted in Q, reverberate poignantly with the contemporary switch towards eBooks.

Wu Ming 1 mentioned that the collective are about release an eBook of the best of their blog at €4 per download. He also stressed the material is still available for free online in unedited form. The collective also give away their novels as free downloads, but do suggest that people make donations if they want Wu Ming to be able to produce more fiction.

When I said I was impressed that their blog had become one of the most successful websites in Italy, Wu Ming 1 shrugged his shoulders: “It’s a mechanical effect, a lot of people have stopped blogging and hardly anyone is writing seriously about the financial and political crisis. Since we do, people read what we have to say.” And while Wu Ming 1 doesn’t say it, you could also make the same observation about Altai and the collective’s other books. Like great science fiction, Wu Ming’s historical thrillers are always also about the present.