54 Tells the Story of Life in the Shadow of A Failed Revolution
“The Italian resistance was so significant that it basically liberated Northern Italy, and it was holding down maybe six or seven German divisions… In fact, when the American and British armies made it up to Northern Italy, they had to throw out a government already established by the Italian resistance in the region, and they had to dismantle various steps towards workers’ control over industry that were being set up.” Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power, p. 161
54 is written by the Italian Wu Ming collective (Mandarin for ‘anonymous’ and ‘five names, depending on its pronunciation and perhaps most significantly, a nom de plume often used by Chinese revolutionaries), for their last book they were known as Luther Blissett an Englishman who used to play football for AC Milan. For those not au fait with the world of post-situ art hoaxers (for shame!), Luther Blissett is a nom de plume used by aforementioned hoaxers in the course of said hoaxing. Previous stunts under the same name (although not necessarily the same collective) include concocting a phony media scandal about a high ranking Italian cleric being involved in paedophile child smuggling ring and organising a bus hijack/techno party/riot with the cops through the streets of Rome. Their previous book, Q is an epic, it tells the story of the insurrections and peasants revolts that broke out in Germany and Holland in the 15th century, through the eyes of a nameless and wandering radical. The rebellions of this period challenged the authority of the feudal lords and the papal hierarchy which justified them; they turned religion against the Church, demanding an end to class society in biblical language. Q is a long story of rebellion, and inevitably its defeat, whether at the hands of the armies of the Catholic church, of the new Protestant elite, or those of a crazed and brutal demagogue.
If rebellion is the main story of Q, then its failure is the main story of 54. The book is centred around Italy in the year 1954, at the peak of the Cold War. The main character is one Robespierre Capponi, second son of a communist revolutionary and barman in the Communist Party Aurora bar in Bologna. His brother Nicola, who manages the bar, fought with the Italian anti-fascist partisans during the war and was permanently crippled by a Nazi bullet. The book opens during the war as the men’s father, Vittorio Capponi leads a mutiny against his commanding officer in his unit fighting on the Yugoslavian front and runs off the join Tito’s partisans. The war casts a long shadow on the rest of the book, as the old revolutionaries struggle to come to terms with the shallow victory that they have won. The revolution that they fought for has given way to a corrupt government propped up by the United States , Mussolini is dead, but everywhere the fascists are being pardoned and are back in power while many of the former partisans are being persecuted. This failure, and how it’s dealt with is one of the main themes of the book.
Angela. It’s strange to think about a person so close to you whom you might never see again. You feel a void opening up, but not in the future, which is almost always a void. It’s the past that seems to deepen, to pass once and for all, to become a photograph.
For the regulars of Bar Aurora in Bologna, the days are spent playing cards, arguing about football and digesting the Party line expounded in L’Unita, the newspaper of the Communist Party. Things are black and white, Kruschev is a comrade and the government are all dickheads, the Yanks will kill us all with their A-bomb, but if I had one now I’d do them first. There’s not much room for those who don’t fit in to this schema, Tito is a fascist for not kowtowing to Stalin which makes Pierre’s father a double traitor, to the Italian state for mutiny, and to the Italian Communist Party for remaining in Yugoslavia after the war to serve Tito.
His son Robespierre is born difficult; too young to participate in the anti-fascist resistance, he grew up with all the idealism of the early days and all the disappointment of the Cold War. He refuses to accept the monochrome analysis of L’Unita or the grey life that seems his only possibility and decides to leave Bologna to find his father in Yugoslavia. To do so he turns to Ettore, a former partisan turned smuggler for help. Ettore is one of the best characters in the book, another person who doesn’t quite fit. Despite his heroism during the war he is thrown out of the Party for disreputable conduct and is forced to make a living through smuggling. Like Robespierre he won’t accept the dull conformity of the Party line, but he has already lived and experienced better things and spends the rest of his life in the shadow of these few years during the war.
However, this isn’t the only plot in the book. Wu Ming delight in constructing a complex and elaborate series of narrative threads which dip in and out of each other, populated by colourful characters from all strands of life. Most impressive is their use of Cary Grant, the most stylish man on the planet, sent by MI6 on a secret mission to discuss making a movie about Tito with the man himself. Grant is complex and divided, he had worked for the agency before, supplying them with information about fascists in Hollywood during the war, but he is uncomfortable with McCarthy’s America that has materialised since then, an America that drove his friend Frances Farmer to insanity on suspicion of Communist sympathies. He is haunted by her ghost, as well as that of his former self, Archie Leach, a working class circus performer from Bristol. As we discover, Cary Grant is himself a performance, the greatest act of Archie Leach.
The past is central in 54, but so is the revolution. Vittorio Capponi seems equivalent to the central character from Q, the eternal revolutionary, moving from one struggle to the next, but always refusing to stand by and watch life from the sidelines. As a worker, a member of the Communist Party and an anti-fascist he risked his life for the struggle again and again, but as Pierre observes, he always managed to be on the wrong side. This love of revolution is at the heart of both 54 and of Q, the end of 54 finds father and son together in a cantina in Mexico where they encounter Castro Ruz as he attempts to build up a guerrilla army, the rest it seems, is history.
This meeting spells out much of the political ambiguity that is at the heart of this book and that of Q, Wu Ming never quite lay their cards on the table. In Q, the nameless revolutionary wandered from a near communist peasant revolt, to the dictatorship of a psychotic zealot intent on creating the Day of Judgement, to a massive bank heist, without ever expounding his own politics except through his choice of leaders. If he has any identity at all, he seems to be the spirit of revolt itself, not unlike Luther Blissett or Wu Ming are supposed to represent. Capponi’s movement from one struggle to the next betrays the same ambiguity, although we can definitely say he is anti-Stalinist. Of course, this nitpicking seems to be against the spirit of the books, which exalt in revolutionary struggle wherever it occurs, but both books are also haunted by the spectre of counterrevolution, whether that of the Protestant princes of Germany, the Spanish Inquisition, Stalinist totalitarianism, or Tito’s slide into dictatorship. Such failures would seem to beg a better exploration, but unfortunately, this isn’t broached. Despite this unsatisfying aftertaste, 54 is an excellent and moving novel, the characters are beautifully constructed and highly sympathetic, and grip us til the end
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