Monday, May 19, 2008

54 by Wu Ming

This is the same Italian collective that, under the name Luther Blissett, wrote Q, the acclaimed 16th century Euro-thriller. Now called Wu Ming (Mandarin for “No Name”), they’ve produced something even better, a sprawling Cold War thriller set, as the title suggests, in 1954. Though the old post-war era is not quite dead, the new one, dictated by TV, Hollywood and assorted forms of criminality, is about to be born. In Bologna, a young man searches for his ex-partisan father, who deserted Mussolini's army to fight alongside the communists in Yugoslavia. In Naples, exiled gangster Lucky Luciano solidifies his empire, while an underling steals the profits of a drugs deal. In Palm Springs, Cary Grant is persuaded by MI6 to undertake a secret mission to Yugoslavia to talk to Marshal Tito about making a film of his life, and so entice him away from the Soviet Union. Linking these narratives is a non-functioning American television, appropriately called a McGuffin, stolen from an army base near Naples, which passes through various hands. With the novel also taking place in Trieste, a city of civil unrest, and the south of France, where Grant comes out of retirement to make To Catch a Thief, there are cameos by Hitchcock, Grace Kelly and David Niven. Reminiscent of Ellroy and Dos Passos, 54 is also a critique of Fleming-inspired spy fiction. Travelling to Yugoslavia, Grant reads Casino Royale: “paragraph after paragraph of pointless details, depicting a lifestyle that struck Cary as brash and fake.” Yet Bond will personify the era, while Luciano peddles electrical appliances as well as drugs, for “everybody wants this new miracle of progress.” Highly recommended.