Untitled-2Needless to say, Luther Blissett, the former Watford and AC Milan striker, did not write this book.  Rather it’s the work of four founders of the Luther Blissett Project, a mysterious Italian neo-Marxist group that, up until the turn of the millennium, encouraged artists and activists across Europe to perform subversive acts under the Blissett “multi-name”.

By rights, given its shared authorship and ideological baggage, Q should make for a lousy book. So it’s all the more remarkable that it should turn out to be one of the most thought-provoking and enjoyable novels of the decade.

Set during the extraordinary period of religious unrest triggered by Martin Luther in 1517, Q describes the moment when the Protestant struggle to liberate faith from Catholic doctrine exploded into a revolutionary attempt to realise the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

The plot tracks a 30-year cat-and-mouse game played out across Germany, the Netherlands and beyond by two men: our hero, a radical Anabaptist who travels under many names, and the eponymous Q, a shadowy Papal informer spying for the Inquisition.

Along the way we encounter a larger-than-life cast of religious zealots, apocalyptic visionaries and heretical free spirits. The book resurrects a number of historical figures from the proto-communist Anabaptist movement, notably Thomas Muntzer, the radical preacher who led the ill-fated Peasant War which Engels saw as a forerunner of revolutionary class conflict.

But while Engels revisited the theological conflicts of the Reformation from the perspective of 19th century Marxism, Q unearths these half-buried histories in a spirit of post-modern mischief. As our battle-weary protagonist survives a series of doomed revolts, each more bloodily suppressed than the last, he gradually realises the primacy of word over sword as an instrument of resistance.

At this point the novel’s backdrop changes, besieged German city-states giving way to the whispering back-alleys of Venice, the Babel-like crossroads of the world (and thus an analog of the internet). Rabble-rousing in market squares is eschewed in favour of huddled rendezvous in bookshops and printing presses. Then as now, Q seems to suggest, the viral potential of ideas is what the powerful fear most.

Yet nowhere do these ideological subtexts obstruct Q’s effectiveness as a novel. Neither didactic nor over-simplifying, its dramas are human before they are political. The authors have a canny feel for the paradoxes and self-destructive impulses of revolutionary movements, and much of the book reflects on the fine line between utopian zeal and tyranny.

Stylistically, Q is a bold, refreshing and irreverent take on the historical novel, mixing erudite fact with action-packed fiction. With a direct, sinewy prose, against the odds the four authors manage to sustain a consistent and convincing narrative voice.

Q exults in the sights, sounds and swarming humanity of the cities of the European Renaissance. It’s a giddying tour of pubs, brothels, slums and marketplaces, flitting between the high and low culture of the age, from brooding palaces to the bawdy, proletarian life of the streets. The descriptions of Venice in particular drip with atmosphere.

This is not to say that the novel is not flawed. In places it is self-indulgent, in others clunky and verbose, and at over 600 pages it’s seriously overlong. But Q simply gets better the longer it goes on; if you can stick with it past the first 100 pages, chances are you’ll be gripped.

Part thriller, part picaresque historical fantasy, part heartfelt novel of ideas, Q is a unique and audacious achievement.

 

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