‘Q’ – Fiction with an aim

‘Q’ by ‘Luther Blissett’ is definitely worth a read. And it’s also yet another reason the Death of the Author is bullshit.

Discussion of Q’s author is a slightly more complex task than one might imagine, not just because the book has four of them, but because they wrote under a pseudonym with its own history.

‘Luther Blissett’, from 1994 to 1999, was a name for hundreds of Italian social activists, with a primarily Marxist perspective, who produced art, staged pranks, and basically attempted to act like a modern Robin Hood. Four members of the Luther Blissett Project wrote Q.

So there’s clearly got to be something interesting in this book.

An anonymous German scholar, known by hundreds of names (but mostly ‘Gert from the Well’) becomes embroiled in the German Peasant’s War of 1524 because of loyalty to the newly formed Anabaptist sect of Protestants in Germany. He finds himself involved in the highest echelons of the Anabaptists, collaborating directly with Thomas M√ľntzer, while a papal spy known only as ‘Q’ attempts to destroy them. Gradually, as time passes and the nature of the conflict changes, Gert and Q almost seem to forget about the external conflict and start trying to hunt one another down.

A quick bit of housekeeping, before we move on, so that the context is laid out:

It’s a cat-and-mouse game between two spies on different sides of a religious conflict in the Holy Roman Empire lasting from about 1524 to 1550. It’s written by four people, and yet manages to retain a consistent style, which, while occasionally overbearing, works reasonably well. Strong start and strong conclusion. The middle of the work is bogged down by details and there are too many people named Jan.

Obviously, Q’s actual identity is almost irrelevant; rather, the book focuses on the prices and the processes of massive social change, as the German Peasant’s War begins and ends. Much of the actual content of the book is about the Anabaptists trying to retain land they’ve conquered, or convincing large swathes of the German countryside of the validity of their cause by distributing flyers. The invention of the printing press in Italy actually has a huge effect on the plot, which is nice.

What I’m about to say may give the impression that I dislike this book. That’s not the case; it’s an excellent read, go find a copy.

The members of the Luther Blissett team having a Marxist strain of thought – or at least, an anarchistic one – the book seems to almost explicitly compare the Protestant Revolution with later communist uprisings. Gert makes several speeches throughout that could have been directly ripped from a fictionalised account of the Russian Revolution. It’s all tied together in a neat little bow when you remember that one of the first landmark pieces of Marxist historiography was Engels’ account of the German Peasant’s War.

The authors behind Luther Blissett (who now call themselves Wu Ming, by the way, and have added a fifth member since) were almost certainly aware of this fact at the time of writing. Therein lies the reason, I believe, they decided to write this book.

It’s possible, with a few generalisations, to trace a pattern of western civilisation becoming more individualistic over the past few hundred years. In their view, the Protestant Revolution essentially led the way for, or created the pattern for, unrest with the industrial society that was to appear in England hundreds of years later. This society was witnessed directly by Marx and Engels, who used it as partial evidence for their work. Hence, the in the Protestant Revolution lay the seeds of Marxism. In these people’s eyes, history follows a chain of events something like this:

Renaissance->rise of individualism->Protestantism->rise of scientific logic/theory (parallel)->Marxism/rise of secular logic and communism->WWI (breakdown of Europe)

Or something very roughly like this.

It’s possible that Blissett – well, the four Italian authors, anyway – felt that to write about the Revolution and implicitly compare it to later communist movements was to give their anarchistic goals a certain historicity – by spreading the book far enough, they could create the general impression in our culture that communism had an implicit spiritual ancestor in Protestantism and thus was slightly more legitimate than some movement which had effectively come from the minds of two Germans in the nineteenth century. Instead of being pushed only by literal Marxists, the struggle for economic and social freedoms was now a battle which had been waged in Germany for hundreds of years.

That said, they’re not changing history overtly. They’re not lying or making mistakes. They’re just recontextualising what’s already there, casting the Peasant’s War as the beginning of a long series of conflicts fought in the name of rightful justice. It’s a retrospective framework that Luther Blissett (was? were?) fully conscious of, and in fact were doctoring with an aim. An agenda, one might say.

At first, ‘Q’ looks like a book about spiritual warfare. But as it progresses, the story becomes increasingly political – as does the book itself, upon investigation. In ‘Q’, the art itself is in the form. It’s been perfectly done – written by the right people, with the right idea, at the right time – centuries afterwards, when hindsight’s tried its best to blind us.


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