(Reviewed by Mary Whipple NOV 16, 2006)
"As you yourself have pointed out, Mr. [Cary] Grant, J. Edgar Hoover [at the FBI] has had it in for you ever since he first felt his jurisdiction being invaded by your intelligence activities, and by ours [in MI6]. Furthermore, you are friends with well-known liberals, and you have defended Mr. Chaplin, who is perhaps the single individual most hated by the head of the FBI. As you have said, Mr. Grant, Hoover is a squalid nuisance, and his bureau is more like the Gestapo than anything else I have ever seen. Even President Eisenhower holds him and his methods in profound contempt."
Cary Grant's assignment by MI6, to play the role of Yugoslav leader Marshall Tito in a film biography, is just one of the plot lines in this jam-packed novel, set in 1954 and filled with subplots. The West is trying to form closer ties with Tito since he has already broken with the strict communism of the Soviet Union, which, in turn, will use the KGB to prevent Tito's ties to the West. In Trieste, on the coast of Yugoslavia, many Italian partisans who fought on that front during World War II, have remained, supported by friends and family in Bologna as they engage in the smuggling of oil and other products into Trieste. These Bolognese supporters, all members of the local communist party, are trying to control the future of "Italian" Trieste. In Naples, Salvatore Lucania ("Lucky Luciano"), recently deported from the US, works at controlling the world's drug trade—and many other illegal activities.
As these plots develop simultaneously, the reader must keep track of dozens of characters and their activities, since the various plots do not overlap until the end. Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock, David Niven, Grace Kelly, and the James Bond novels all play parts in Grant's story. The Naples story, with Luciano, involves all the on-going crimes of this don and his henchmen—drugs, race-fixing, gambling, prostitution. The Bologna plot is far more domestic, with a young man searching for his father, who is in Trieste, and a love story involving a married woman who takes care of her mentally ill brother. Minor threads involve the McCarthy hearings, Emperor Bao Dai from Vietnam, Nikita Krushchev, and even Fidel Castro.
Wu Ming, the "author," is actually a collective of five Italian writers (four of whom, known as "Luther Blissett," wrote the Reformation novel, Q). While multiple authors allow enormous creativity and energy to flourish, they also lead, in this case, to vast amounts of period detail and the creation of more characters than I can recall in one novel in a long time. As each author writes his own sections, the novel suffers from a looseness in overall construction and the lack of a single vision. The grand finale, worthy of James Bond in fast-paced, violent action, almost feels anticlimactic as the various plots finally come together more than five hundred fully-packed pages after they began.Filled with local color—bars, casinos, races, card games, and political movements—the novel is often lively and fun to read. The points of view and location change every few pages, however, and, with little plot overlap, the reader feels as if s/he is reading four separate novels simultaneously. Humor and irony pervade the novel, including sections written from the point of view of a TV set, a scheme to make a Madonna weep, and a satiric view of an FBI agent. There's a lot of everything in this lively novel! One only wishes its authors had been able to exert a bit more control over its direction by pruning it of its excess.
- Amazon readers rating: from 4 reviews
Read a chapter excerpt from 54 at author's website
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- 54 (2002; July 2006 in US)
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About the Author:
Wu Ming is a mysterious collective of guerrilla novelists from Italy. The group originated as part of the Luther Blissett project, which published the novel, Q. In January 2000, some of the LBP regrouped as Wu Ming, more focused on literature and storytelling in a narrower sense of the word, but no less radical.
The five Wu Ming writers are Roberto Bui, Giovanni Cattabriga, Luca Di Meo, Federico Guglielmi and Riccardo Pedrini. Wu Ming, which means “Anonymous” in Mandarin.