In 1517, Martin Luther nails his ninety-five theses to the door of Wittenburg Cathedral, and a dance of death begins between a radical Anabaptist with many names and a loyal papal spy known mysteriously as "Q." In this brilliantly conceived literary thriller set in the chaos of the Reformation-an age devastated by wars of religion-a young theology student adopts the cause of heretics and the disinherited and finds himself pursued by a relentless papal informer and heretic hunter. What begins as a personal struggle to reveal each other's identity becomes a mission that can only end in death.
The protagonist starts off as a radical student at Wittenburg University, and becomes a soldier in the cause of religious reform, moving through Northern Europe, travelling under many different names and sometimes having to go into hiding. Despising the Lutherans as having become as much a part of the establishment as the Catholic church, he hooks up with the more extreme Anabaptists, travelling with various preachers and agitators, inciting peasants and townspeople to rebel against the aristocrats and merchants who oppress them. In later years, his methods become more indirect, as he perpetrates a fraud on the bankers who finance the people in power, and becomes involved in publishing and distributing a banned book, "The Benefit of Christ Crucified", in the hope of influencing the opinions of Catholic intellectuals and the more moderate cardinals and ensuring the election of a sympathetic pope, who will curb the powers of the inquisition.
Decades of intrigues and attacks, betrayals and retreats, rashness and remorse, are rushing together all of a sudden. The prophets and the king of a single, tragic day; cardinals and popes, and new popes; bankers, princes, merchants and preachers; men of letters, painters and spies, and counsellors and pimps. Everywhere, involving everyone, the same war.
The story covers nearly forty years of the Reformation, portraying it as social revolution as much as religious reform, if not more so. It skips backwards and forwards in time, but each of the short chapters is dated, so I found it easy to follow. Gert from the Well's story is interspersed with letters from the Catholic spy known as Q or Qoelet, who is working for the Vatican to counter the plots of its foes, whether they be Anabaptists, Lutherans or indeed the Holy Roman Emperor himself.
The name of the footballer Luther Blissett was used as a nom de plume by various artists and radicals around the world during the 1990s, as part of the loosly organised "Luther Blissett Project. "Q" was written by a collective of four Italian anarchists, who have since written another novel under the name Wu Ming.
It is an utterly fascinating story, which leaves the reader with lots to think about - what happened in Munster really reminded me of "Animal Farm". While I was reading the early parts of this book, I was also reminded me about the pet hen in "Sredni Vashtar" by Saki. The Houdan hen was never drawn into the cult of Sredni Vashtar. Conradin had long ago settled that she was an Anabaptist. He did not pretend to have the remotest knowledge as to what an Anabaptist was, but he privately hoped that it was dashing and not very respectable. I think Conradin should be very satisfied with his choice.
Ehm... Stupid or not, it really happened. During the 1970's that meeting was one of the subjects of Prof Carlo Ginzburg's historical research.
BTW, some key members of Anabaptism, far from
Q is a good book. It is well written with an intriguing plot and unlike many historical novels it uses past events and characters to its advantage. I am glad I got to the end; however, it was a struggle. Partly this is due to the off-hand brutality that peppers the book, partly because the story is told in a multitude of ways that can sometimes be difficult to follow. The characters are hit-and-miss, some wonderful and realistic (some of the side characters hesitation between inaction, madness, faith and morality is genuinely sad), others being two-dimensional. Mostly, however, the main character just got on my nerves: he is both wise and sensible when others give in to insanity, a believer in the revolutions he follows and helps foment, a student of life's harshest lessons ... but most of all he can seem like a bit of a whiner. The defeats he has suffered and how others have been harmed because of him are stressed relentlessly; the intrigues with Q and the final denouement are bizarrely out of character and I struggle to see his passion for his cause.
Irritation with the narrator is a fairly fatal blow, but fortunately it is insufficient to sink 'Q'. It is intelligent, interesting and rewarding and although I occasionally wonder what else I could have done with all that time, I'm leaving the book on hand because one day I suspect I will revisit it.
It is set in the early 16th century and is centred around a theme I was never interested in, Reformation; furthermore is quite a long novel (more than the average) and structured along a non-linear
Nonetheless it is an interesting read. Not an essay, but its history is well researched, so much that the leading character moves around in the shadows of "History", often in touch with true historical characters.
There is a scene in Alan Bennett's History Boys where the instructor tells his students, if you want to know about
Luther Blissett is the pseudonym for four politically radical Italian novelists who will later in another incarnation be known as Wu Ming. This creative endeavor finds its historical subject in a most messy marriage, one that gleams even as it oozes.
The real names of the protagonists are never revealed, and they each go by various aliases throughout the book, which can be a bit confusing at times. The book is translated from the Italian, and contains explicit scatological language which will not come as a surprise to anyone who has studied the writings and sayings of Luther, but which sound strange to modern ears on the lips of Protestant preachers and their congregations.
Q provides an interesting slant on the Protestant reformation for anyone interested in this period. It also provides an interesting perspective on the participation and survival of Sephardic Judaism in Europe.
One really great thing about this book is that it is licensed under Creative Commons. This means that the text can be legally reproduced in electronic form, provided the author and copyright notice are acknowledged. Hopefully this is the way of publishing in the future.
I loved the surprise ending.