The edition: Italian (original) edition as published by Einaudi, 677 pages
(Note: quotes in this posts are from the English translation by Shaun Whiteside, as published by Random House, and taken from the e-book version that you can download for free, together with other works by the same author, from this page)
The story: an historical novel set in the first half of the 16th century, as Europe is thorn by the results of the Protestant reformation. The narrator, a former student at Wittenberg during Martin Luther’s predication, gets attached and involved in several of the major uprisings and religious wars of the century. His nemesis is Q (Qoèlet), a spy for the Roman Catholic Church.
My experience with the book & my thoughts: there is a quote that sums this book quite well:
Books only change the world if the world is capable of digesting them.
My major problem in talking about this book is that I’m not sure that I have digested it correctly. It was presented as a pamphlet, and this kept me from enjoying the novel as such, while still not being sure to understand what the pamphlet was all about. So please bear with me while I share my thoughts on these two separate levels.
The novel: the first third of the novel is extremely slow, and that means over 200 pages that seem never to end. In this part the structure is very complicated (think a series of flashbacks and flash forwards inside a major flashback, and then complicate it some more), the stile a bit stale, and the subject matter (the finer points of religious differences between the various Christian denominations) not too reader-friendly. I have to admit I only trudged forward because I am very stubborn when we talk not abandoning a book — and because husband was vouching for it.
It then picks up. The second part is much better, and the last part is very good. For one thing, you get a wider understanding of the structure of the book and are not lost anymore (it also is way simpler here). Characters grow to be more interesting, more fully developed (although you never quite get to understand their motives), even though very few of them are what you would call likeable. And the story gets on a roll and finally grabs you.
I also liked that the novel was extremely well researched: the narrator and Q may be the only two invented characters in the whole book! And it generally felt right for the time it described, more so than any other historical fiction I have ever read.
Bottom line: it starts slow, but it still gets thumbs up from me!
The pamphlet: Q was a novel published under “copyleft”, and well before the era of Creative Commons. This alone was enough to justify considering it a pamphlet. The cover blurbs and everything around it also presented it as such. But a pamphlet about what? I didn’t know and went into the book bewaring this aspect.
For most of the book I thought it was about religion. I still believe there is a component of this, and it still bugs me. For a book to be successful among the Italian intelligentsia it needs to be anti-Catholic, and that is an aspect that I hate of Italian literature; but never did Q strike me as completely anti-religious.
But in the end, I am convinced that the major part of this message is about books and the power of ideas. It is not by chance that the authors set the novel at the exact time when print was making books and ideas available for a wider public. It is not by chance that they decided to free their book for everyone who wanted to read it. It is not by chance that they make use of a character that is a book-seller and says:
‘Mine is the riskiest job in the world, you know? I’m responsible for the distribution of ideas, maybe the most awkward ideas in existence.’
And this ode to the power of books is an aspect that I can relate to and admire.
Language & writing: oh how I hate their use of commas! (Sorry, pet peeve, don’t mind me.)
Venice: the third part of this book is set in Venice and I think it does a great job at depicting a Venice that is at the same time the real one (full of schemes and people trying to get rich and thieves and lords and whatnot) and the one so often imagined, of palaces and mysteries and charm and undying fascination. Here it is in the author(s)’ own words:
St Mark’s Square doesn’t seem like part of a city, it’s more like a great salon in some palace or other, the covered deck of a huge vessel, the mainmast being that robust campanile, wide at the base and narrow at the top, and the clock tower the fo’c’sle, beneath which we are now passing, with two admirals perched at the top ready to ring the big bell.
Somehow or other I’ve crossed the labyrinth of this strange city that now separates me from St Mark’s. I wouldn’t know where to start if I wanted to go back the way I had come. Doubtless I’d find myself a few yards away from that enormous church without being aware of it, and end up who knows where. And that’s exactly the prevailing sensation: that you could go on walking endlessly without ever getting anywhere, or else finding yourself in places you’d never imagined, hidden places. Wonders await you behind every corner, at the end of every alleyway.
Links to better understand this book:
- definition and history of Anabaptism
- a view on 16th century Europe
- also Wikipedia’s article on this novel has links to the major historical characters therein
- more on Luther Blissett/Wu Ming
Read this if: if you are into historical novels and are interested in that period, in religious wars and namely the Protestant Reformation and everything that followed.
Counts as: Venice in February challenge.