Wu Ming’s magical history tour

It is a sunny spring morning and I am standing underneath an imposing statue of Neptune in Bologna’s magnificent Piazza Maggiore, waiting for a tap on my shoulder. This is my rendezvous point with Wu Ming 1. I don’t know what he looks like, as all four members of the pseudonymous Italian literary collective have always declined to have their pictures taken. But I am doing my best to look a little furtive, like an exotic foreigner trying but failing to look like a local.

The Graham Greene act succeeds. The tap arrives as I am taking a picture of Neptune. Roberto Bui, aka Wu Ming 1, asks me if I am Peter, and we shake hands. “I have a better angle for your photograph,” he says, and pulls me around to the other side of the fountain.

“This is a famous joke.” He points to the building behind us. “There used to be a convent here. And this is the view the nuns would have had.” I look afresh at what is now a three-quarter back view of Neptune. The god’s left arm is hidden, apart from his thumb, which seems to spring upwards with joyous abandon from his loins. “It looks like his penis,” explains my guide, unnecessarily. “The artist did it deliberately, to upset the nuns. So it is said, in popular folklore.”

This is a typical Wu Ming moment. The group is devoted to restoring the folkloric element of Italy’s past, mining the country for its forgotten or secret histories. It uses the material in its erudite novels, and in its widely-followed blog, Giap, which pronounces on social and political affairs with a barely concealed contempt for the leaders who have brought Italy to its current, messy state. The group’s leftwing views are to be expected. Their native city Bologna, site of Europe’s oldest university, is known as an anti-establishment stronghold, with a hedonistic streak: “la dotta, la grassa, la rossa”, the learnt, the fat, the red. But they are also wary of simplistic populism: witness their recent critique of Beppe Grillo, the comedian-turned-politician whose Five Star Movement they mistrust.

The statue of Neptune in Piazza Maggiore

We walk onwards for a few metres, and stop in front of a wall covered in portrait pictures of mostly young men from decades past. “These are fallen partisans from the war,” he explains. “I showed them to my three-year-old daughter and told her they were heroes. So she asked me why they weren’t wearing masks.” We both smile ruefully. “I told her heroes looked different then.”

Wu Ming’s members, who also don’t wear masks, have written a new book, Altai, and rather than agree to my request for a simple interview, they have offered, instead, to take me on a day out to places that they promise I will find “interesting”. They rarely meet the press in their entirety. “You are one of the few,” says Wu Ming 1 as we walk through the city to meet the others. “It is a great privilege for you.” This is said with heavy irony.

We meet the other three members outside Wu Ming 2’s apartment. Numbers 4 and 5 arrive promptly (Wu Ming 3 left the group in 2008) and we are introduced by name. It is one of the myths around the collective that they are strictly anonymous: they are far from it. They say they just don’t like the idea of celebrity. Splitting into two cars, the five of us drive into the countryside.

Wu Ming, which in Chinese means either “anonymous” or “five names”, depending on how you pronounce the first syllable, used to be part of a wider group formed in the 1990s, known as Luther Blissett. Their choice of that pseudonym gave them an instant cult following in Britain: Blissett, a black footballer who had played for Watford and England, secured an improbable move to AC Milan in 1983 but was shipped straight back to Watford after just one season.

The first novel by Luther Blissett (the collective, not the player) was 1999’s Q, an intricate thriller of ideas set in Reformation Europe. Though well-received, it was the group’s media pranks that earned it wider notoriety.

The site in Sabbiuno where villagers were executed by the Nazis

There was the story of Harry Kipper, the British conceptual artist who disappeared at the Italo-Slovenian border, prompting an Italian TV crew to report on his disappearance. And then the Serbian sculptor Darko Maver, who died in one of his country’s prisons during a Nato bombing campaign, eliciting gushing praise for his work in magazines.

Both were elaborate Luther Blissett hoaxes. “[Our hoaxes] were crowded with imaginary artists, because the art world is crowded with gullible people and makes for a perfect target,” says the group today.

It was a perfect postmodern moment: this group of playful and erudite young men, named collectively after a dodgy English footballer, playing fast and loose with credulous reporters and pompous art commentators, yet themselves managing to produce novels of real historical heft. “Medieval church carnage. It’s mental,” enthused Radiohead’s Thom Yorke of Q. “I want to get it made into a film.” Just who were these people?

Another view of the Sabbiuno memorial

We drive parallel to a portico of rose-red arches that lead to the basilica of San Luca. I am in the car with Wu Mings 1 and 2, and they tell me that there are 666 arches in total, a number that is alleged to have satanic implications. “It was a place of pilgrimage but to get to the basilica you had to walk with the devil,” says Wu Ming 1. “The portico is like a snake, and you are inside his belly.”

It is a lurid image to ponder as we leave the city behind. After about 20 minutes we arrive in the village of Sabbiuno and stop at the top of a small cliff. We stand on its edge. This is the place, explains the group, pointing down, where dozens of bodies were found at the end of the war. They were villagers who had been summarily executed by the Nazis. A memorial to the 100 dead – 53 were known, the others anonymous – was erected in the 1970s, consisting of individual boulders strung in a line, each one inscribed with a single name. “It is a masterpiece of land art,” says Wu Ming 1.

It is a quiet, solitary place, demanding of respect. Wu Ming 2, Giovanni Cattabriga, talks about the new railway line between Bologna and Florence that passes close to here. “They devastated the landscape, just to save about 20 minutes on the journey,” he says. “Now, in a 20km-wide band between the cities, there are two highways and three railway lines. All to raise the gross national product.”

The restaurant where the group had lunch

“I like the relationship between the land and its stories,” adds Wu Ming 1, who speaks the best English in the group. “Landscape is a text. You click on a place, and there are its stories, like a website.” Wu Mings 3 and 4 walk up to a small museum dedicated to the site of the slaughter. It should be open but is closed. Not an uncommon experience in Italy, I say, and they nod in reluctant agreement.

We get into the cars and drive to Rio Conco, a small lay-by off a country road, where there is another memorial. It lists 15 victims who were shot by the Nazis in reprisal for the killing of two soldiers by the partisans. “They dug their own graves and were shot at dusk,” says the plaque.

Listening to the four members of the group discussing our itinerary, it is clear they treat these locations like shrines, small testaments to a period in Italy’s recent history that is already retreating from the country’s collective memory. That they should fade from view completely is the group’s biggest fear.

A few minutes down the road we arrive at Colle Ameno, a complex of buildings dating from the 18th century, when it was an artists’ colony. It was later taken over by the German army for use as a labour camp. The grim locations put me in mind of the group’s earlier warning: here in these verdant, rolling hills, we are truly inside the belly of the devil.

Replica guns at the Sabbiuno memorial

Wu Ming’s latest novel, Altai, is a kind of follow-up to Q, taking the story of the socio-political turmoil of the 16th century to new landscapes: Venice, Istanbul, Cyprus. This semi-fictionalised, micro-historical account of the struggle for dominance between the Venetian and Ottoman empires is told through the eyes of a spy, Emmanuele De Zante, who is the only invented character among the novel’s real-life protagonists.

Like Q, the book is rich in historical detail but contains enough twists and narrative momentum to keep the flagging reader going. The group describes its mission statement – my words, not theirs – as “telling stories, by all means necessary”. In addition to the novels, Wu Ming writes non-fiction books, takes part in musical projects, and puts out its cultural blog, one of the most widely-followed in Italy.

What was it, I ask, that drew them to the periods covered in Q and Altai? “The 16th century was the foundation of modernity,” replies Wu Ming 4, “of the state, of capitalism, of the idea of the clash of civilisations.” They were drawn to writing Q, about the German peasant revolt, by the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Mexico’s Chiapas province.

I ask about their early days. Two of them, Wu Mings 2 and 4, were at high school together in Bologna. They met Wu Ming 1 in a pub, and Wu Ming 5, Riccardo Pedrini, a member of Italy’s most famous punk band Nabat, joined soon after Q was published. The name Luther Blissett was chosen, they say, at random. “Although there have been many urban legends about what it means,” adds Wu Ming 4, Federico Guglielmi. “Some say it was an anti-racist statement. Other people thought Blissett himself was a hoax, he played so badly.”

The decision to write a communal novel was partly experimental, partly a critique of the cult of the literary auteur. The jeu d’esprit has not played well in their own land, says Wu Ming 1. “In Italy they hate our guts. The kind of reviews we get in Britain are inconceivable here. They find the fact that we write together very irritating. They love this idea of the writer as individual genius.

“We have a strange sort of centrality in public debate,” he adds. “It is a contradiction in terms: we are at the fringes but also at the centre.” Wu Ming 5, who has extravagantly tattooed arms and a slightly more dangerous air than the others, is more certain of the group’s social status: “We are outsiders,” he says.

A mock-up of the Wu Ming collective from the group’s website

And so to lunch, and more black arts. The group has promised to take me to a restaurant that achieved temporary notoriety in the 1970s for being the centre of satanic rituals. “But it was all nonsense,” Wu Ming 1 reassures me. The restaurant, Locanda del Castello, is in an old castle, Palazzo de Rossi, and is rather typical of a provincial Italian country inn.

Over pasta and a bottle of spumante. I ask the group what the morning’s magical history tour was all about. “We look for stories,” replies Wu Ming 1. “Stories that are badly told, that are not told at all, or that are simply forgotten. We brush the dust off them, to try and find the sharp parts. They speak to you from the ground. And when you step on them, you say, ‘Ouch.’ ”

I ask whether they have any intention of taking their leftwing political views into the hustings. “We are involved in politics but as cultural figures, as intellectuals,” says Wu Ming 1. “It is our job to frame stories in the right way,” adds Wu Ming 4. We say our goodbyes over biscotti and the local sweet wine.

In Girlfriend in a Coma, Bill Emmott and Annalisa Piras’s documentary on the decline of contemporary Italy, the anti-Camorra author Roberto Saviano says that nothing less than a “moral rebirth” of the country is needed to enable it to break free of its malign influences. It is a grandiloquent term, demanding of wholesale change on a near-revolutionary scale.

But perhaps Wu Ming is right: the changes have to come, literally, from the ground up. From stories of war, bloodshed and political turmoil that remind people that there is a difference between good and bad, and that it is not always so simple to make the distinction. “Some people say our stories are always about defeat,” says Wu Ming 2 as we leave the table. “But actually they are always about how to overcome defeat.”

Altai is published this week by Verso

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