Sunday, January 10, 2010

'54 and Manituana

The Wu Ming collective have to be an anomaly in the world of popular fiction. They're a 5-man Italian anarchist collective that writes historically situated epic novels that are stylistic, experimental, engrossing, hilarious, politically relevant and are also bestsellers in Italy. Two of them--’54 and Manituana-- are currently available in English. They are both well worth reading.

Imagine your favourites of the following Hollywood genres; noir, spy thriller, mob and heist film. Now imagine this film is set in several different places in the world with a large cast of characters. Imagine these locations include communist Yugoslavia, Italy, the neutral city of Trieste, Moscow, the Riviera and Hollywood. Imagine the characters include Tito, Cary Grant, Frances Farmer, Hitchcock, Grace Kelly, the heads of the KGB, MI6, the CIA and cast of fictional characters.

Also imagine the action is set at the start of the cold war. Plot points include MI6 recruiting Cary Grant to win Tito over to the Western side of the cold war, while the KGB tries to kidnap Grant. A young communist sneaking into Yugoslavia to reunite with his long-lost Italian partisan father, who stayed in Yugoslavia following the war to build communism. A mafia hit man who wants to pull one last job before starting a new life. An illicit affair that leads to deplorable action by the local head of the communist party leading to a woman asserting her subjecthood. Lastly, in homage to Hitchcock, imagine the device that propels the climax of the film is a television produced by the Mcguffin company. (Hitchcock called his plot devices Mcguffins)

Now imagine that this film is a book. Only its written like a film. The chapters are short like scenes (usually a few pages) and written in taut sentences. Imagine that these familiar narratives frame political allegories, so that this enthralling script is also about the sad waning of the Italian partisans, Tito’s Yugoslavia and the pernicious affects of McCarthy, the USA and USSR. Add humorous elements like Grant and Tito instantly hitting it off because they have so much in common, Grant reading a James Bond novel and finding it terrible, the hero of the novel being named Robespierre and more.

If you think this sounds fun or interesting or both this book is called ’54.

Now if your into a more somber sorta epic, there is Manituana. It doesn’t have the clever fun of ’54. It’s a different bag. But Christ, it’s good.

This time the setting is the American Revolution. But as far as I know its unlike any other historical novel set during the revolution because it’s the story of the Iroquois nation’s experience on the loosing side of the revolution. Like ’54, then, it’s also an exploration of what could have happened if crucial points in history had turned out differently.

Importantly, the Iroquois are not romanticized, essentialized or put in a vacuum. Manituana is not a paean for the loss of the noble savage. Instead, the books characters are humanized and contextualized. Historical figures such as Joseph Brant/ Thayendanegea and Mary Brant and fictional characters such as Mary’s son and Philip la Croix are depicted as complex people with hybrid cultures caught in the world politics of the American Revolution. That these world politics will be calamitous for the Iroquois and does little to better the lives of the poor settlers, or the poor, wretched inhabitants of London, does much to humanize and question the greatness of the American Revolution in more effective ways then purely historical accounts.

In depicting the birth of American imperialism, genocide and American exceptionalism, the work is still highly relevant. With the image of Manituana—a Mohawk myth of a hybrid utopian world—it also gives us an anti-imperialist ideal to work for.

If you are interested in learning more about Wu Ming or obtaining free pdfs of ’54 go here. If you are interested in learning more about Manituana visit the Manituana website which has an integrated google earth app to show where the novel takes place and a wealth of other material that relates to the novel.

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