Imagine a historical novel about an indigenous confederation of nations faced with the loss of its lands to European colonists. Now imagine those colonists in rebellion against their government overseas because of its demands to curtail and tax the colonists’ trade. Where does that leave the indigenous peoples? Should they side with the overseas government that has treated them with a certain respect expected of honorable men or should they side with those colonists who they know are stealing their lands? After all, both the overseas government and the colonists are part of the original project to establish their presence on land that is not their own.
Now imagine this novel being written by a collective of Italian fiction writers. Sound far-fetched? Impossible to pull off? Just plain impossible?
Let me introduce Manituana. It is a story set in the Mohawk nation in the 1770s. Joseph Brant, Mohawk war chief and his family, friends and enemies are the primary characters. The Royal Court of England and a group of London ruffians who “dress up” as Indians play supporting roles. Brant, facing threats from aggressive Indian-hating settlers intent on carving up the land of the Mohawks and other member tribes of the Iroquois Confederation and the defection of member tribes and individual members to the side of the American rebels against the Crown of England, undertakes a journey to negotiate the crown’s support for his people in return for their support against the rebels. Included in his entourage is the great warrior Philip Lacroix or Ronaterihonte, the son of Englishman William Johnson and Mohawk shaman Molly Brant, Peter Johnson, and the captured Ethan Allen, one of the first of the American rebels to attack the Confederation’s lands. After gaining the Crown’s support and witnessing the meaningless and corrupt antics of the Court, the entourage heads back to America to engage the rebels in battle on the side of London. From thereon, this is a story of war, flight, and the death and misery that accompany these phenomena.
Manituana is a true fourth world novel. It pits the original peoples of a nation against those who come to colonize it. It is the story of the multiple indigenous nations that existed on the American continent before the Europeans came and destroyed them. It is the story of India and the British Raj and it is the tale of the Algerian people and the French Republic’s colonization of that land. it is also the story of Israel and its ethnic transformation of Palestine into a Western settler state. In short, it is the tale of every people that has seen its land taken over by a European people as intent on making it their own as its original inhabitant are on preventing such an occurrence. This is also the story of America’s indigenous people being manipulated by the European colonists for the Europeans’ own ends. We see a mirror of this situation in today’s manipulations of the indigenous peoples in the lands the west wants as its own today: the Shia vs. Sunni conflict in Iraq and the manipulation of tribal conflicts in Afghanistan are but two examples that come immediately to mind. Manituana evokes the dangerous conceit of men who believe it is their destiny to rule the world.
When one considers that this novel was composed by a collective, they might hesitate. The project sounds unworkable, after all. This group of five Italian writers in Bologna who call themselves Wu Ming has written two previous novels as a collective and produced individual works, as well. Both previous novels by Wu Ming received critical acclaim and one, titled Q, reached the bestseller lists. Manituana also reached into the top ten on Italian bestseller lists. As interesting as their works, the collective currently consists of Roberto Bui (Wu Ming 1), Giovanni Cattabriga (Wu Ming 2), Federico Guglielmi (Wu Ming 4), and Riccardo Pedrini (Wu Ming 5). They consider themselves part of the New Italian Epic movement in Italian literature and come out of the politically-inclined prankster traditions of the avant-garde Luther Blisset phenomenon. Named after the first black Italian footballer, the Luther Blisset movement (if that’s what it was) ran from the mid-1990s until 1999, when its members around the world committed symbolic seppuku.
Although Wu Ming do frequent public appearances and have collaborated on films and with the Italian rock band Yo Yo Mundi on an album, they refuse to be photographed and consider the cult of the author to detract from the written word. “Once the writer becomes a face… it’s a cannibalistic jumble… A photo is witness to my absence…” they stated in a 2007 interview. “On the other hand my voice — with its grain, with its accents, with its imprecise diction, its tonalities, rhythms, pauses and vacillations — is witness to a presence even when I’m not there…”
The first novel of a trilogy that Wu Ming is calling the Atlantic Triptych, Manituana is virtually seamless and the translation is impeccable. It defines what the booksellers mean when they list something as literary fiction. It is a quality story that includes characters of depth, a good deal of action, a consistently thoughtful context and thought-provoking concepts — all presented in a fictional form.