Altai, by Wu Ming, Verso, RRP£16.99/$26.95, 272 pages
In Mandarin, Wu Ming can mean “Five Names” or “No Name” (depending on the tone of wu). This alias masks four members of a collective who are the authors of Altai – and they are Italian, not Chinese. The book’s cover promises “the sequel to Luther Blissett’s bestselling Q”, the novel they published in 1999 under a different pseudonym – Blissett being the real name of a British former professional footballer.
The narrator of Altai begins the book with one name and ends it with another, suffering a queasy uncertainty about who he really is. At one point he describes himself as “A Jew disguised as a Christian dressed up as a Jew, my soul turned inside-out like a pair of trousers”. Even the Altai falcons of the title have a blurred identity. They are, we are told, born of “two different breeds, but similar enough to be able to mate” – a little like the narrator, who has a Jewish mother and Christian father.
Nothing is quite as it seems in the world you enter in this book. And yet it is a compelling page-turner in a surprisingly conventional way.
Emanuele de Zante was born in the Jewish ghetto at Ragusa (Dubrovnik), the child of a romance between the beautiful Sarah and a visiting Venetian sea captain. Sarah dies when he is seven, and the boy runs wild until his father returns and whisks him off to Venice, where he is brought up a Christian. By 1569, when the action in Altai begins, De Zante is a loyal and successful security agent serving the Venetian Republic.
The one inescapable reality amid these shifting identities is his circumcised penis (which we encounter quite often). De Zante is betrayed as a Jew by his mistress and framed for a crime he is investigating – an arson attack on the Arsenal, the heart of La Serenissima’s naval and military power.
He flees Venice to Ragusa, the city of his childhood, where he falls into the hands of men working for Giuseppe Nasi, a powerful Jew at the court of the Ottoman Sultan, and a notorious enemy of Venice. In Salonika (Thessaloniki today, then the “Jerusalem of the Balkans”), he is interrogated by one of Nasi’s agents, who judges that De Zante has valuable military intelligence. The Venetian spy is despatched to Constantinople and the Nasi palace on the Bosphorus.
He is seduced by what he finds. Nasi turns out to be a sophisticated leader with a dream of a new Jewish homeland and recruits De Zante as an ally as he conspires to wage war against Venice. This is the last of our hero’s many betrayals. The qualities that make De Zante a good spy also make him difficult to like: he confesses that he “never hesitated to turn my back on myself. There was nothing true in me to turn it on”, and he loses his one chance of love because of an Othello-like addiction to suspicion.
But by betraying Venice he finds himself. Working through the Jewish texts in Nasi’s magnificent library, he ripens into the “Good Jew” his mother wanted him to be. By the end of his journey he is again Manuel Cardoso, the name his mother gave him.
The authors link this story with Q – a 670-page epic set in Reformation Europe – by giving the central character in the earlier book a supporting role. In yet another identity shift, a German Anabaptist known as Brother Titian in Q becomes an Islamo-curious trader called Ismail in Altai.
There is plenty of violence, sex and drugs. In both books these writers present an X-rated 16th century. Altai will turn your stomach but at least the locations are glamorous – while in Q most of the killing takes place in muddy, cold northern Europe.
Altai is a great historical thriller and the prose has all the surface glitter of the Grand Canal or the Golden Horn. You can take or leave the hype about the authors and their artistic and political mission. For a city break in Venice, Dubrovnik or Istanbul, this is perfect read as it is.
Edward Stourton is the author of ‘Cruel Crossing: Escaping Hitler Across the Pyrenees’ (Doubleday)