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European Literature: Wu Ming

The collective of Italian novelists talk about their pseudonyms and writing about war and terror

The Wu Ming Foundation is a working title for an invisible band of Italian novelists who research and write collective novels that span history looking for the unusual angles shed light on the way things are today. No photos of members have ever been published and interviews with the elusive quartet are hard to come by. Hailing from the student city of Bologna, Wu Ming (Chinese for the anonymous rejection of celebrity) were first active under the ‘collected identity’ of Luther Blissett, a project that adopted the name of a black English football player, began in 1994 and involved using words and narratives disguised as press releases to manipulate media and invent pranks that registered on a pan European scale.

Wu Ming have now focused their practice down to a single cultural output - the novel. These epic novels, that are slowly making their way into English translations, are being published along side a separate body of Italian writing that Wu Ming have identified as being the New Italian Epics. Roberto Saviano’s 2006 Gommorah being the most famous of this emerging canon. As more and more of these novels are translated, Wu Ming are being hailed as both the chief creatives and critics of this new strand of progressive and social writing, the flag bearers of an adventurous type of fiction rooted in Italy’s unique political circumstance and a cultural phenomenon that has become the envy of literary Europe. Dazed met with Roberto Bui known as Wu Ming 1 and Federico Guglielmi, Wu Ming 4, to discuss their work and its place in European literature.

Dazed Digital: Let’s start with the basics, how do you write?
Wu Ming 4: We meet each other two or three times around the table. We need to be in direct physical touch to talk about our projects. In history we are all in the same position. We discover the stories that we tell in the time that we study in the shadowy corners of what we know. Someone has to write the first draft of the first chapter, this takes a lot of humility, and we work with each piece in unison, according to a plan that has everything but the ending. The ending is open. People ask us if this feels strange to write like this, but writing as a collective it is how we were born. 

DD: So what are you working on at the moment?
Wu Ming 1: In the spring time of 2008 the quintet became a quartet, we lost a member of our band and this was very traumatic for us. So we decided to write a new novel. The novel is our therapy and to heal ourselves we needed to return to the original crime scene. That scene was the historical setting for our first novel Q.

DD: Written under the Luther Blissett nom de plume?
Wu Ming 1: Yes but it’s not a sequel, it’s a follow-up. It is not Q 2. We needed to go back there as if it was group therapy and this time be extremely sincere, violent, and brutal to one another because we felt that the reason we’d lost Wu Ming 3 was because there was not enough open conflict within the collective. This was very beneficial to us. The conflict elaborated the morning and we overcame the trauma. 

DD: Your latest English novel, Manituana, is something of an allegory of the Iraq war, is that right?
Wu Ming 1: The Atlantic Triptych that began with Manituana and the American Revolution will now move towards the French Revolution. We are studying ‘terror.’ It’s a Triptych and not a trilogy because if we used the term trilogy it would seem like the second novel is a sequel to the first - but the connections between the novels are thematic - they are not set in the same place nor do they use the same characters. The elements of continuity are all in the themes of what we are exploring.

DD: Wu Ming feels like a phenomenon unique to Italy?
Wu Ming 1:
A few years ago I wrote a memorandum on what we called the ‘New Italian Epic.’ This term can be understood as a body of literary works written since the collapse of political system in 1993. At the beginning of the year we had all the boring old parties in power, by the end of the year they had completely disintegrated. This crazy reality that we were living in started to emerge in novels. We are a creature of this peculiarity in that Bologna is a peculiar town in a peculiar country and that where we are from. Counter-culture and popular culture are not separate, they are always in dialogue. In this tradition, we are a collective of writers who create popular fiction that is demanding yet also demanding fiction that is popular and this is typically Italian. We are a peculiarity created by a larger peculiarity.