Q: A Novel
By Luther Blissett
Inevitably, every fictional effort that comes out of Italy these days is compared to the astounding work of Umberto Eco. So I was not surprised recently while browsing for something to read when I came across Q, a novel by Luther Blissett, whose inside jacket blurb compares the writing to Iain Pears, Michel Houellebecq, and of course, Umberto Eco, three authors I admire very much. More interesting still is the fact that “Luther Blissett” is a pseudonym for four Italian intellectuals living in that quintessential university town, Bologna. From that moment I was rushing to the check out line. For me, Q was an accidental discovery that lead me down a path toward an unknown, or unknowable world. Like most of the great books, I emerged from the text changed and more than slightly shaken. Reading Q is like being struck by a lighting bolt from out of the blue. It levels us.
The wonderful thing about this book is that it takes over your life. Piles of messages and email go unanswered. The phone goes on ringing, and best of all, the television is never turned on. Living in this age of disposable and recyclable entertainment, it’s quite refreshing to find that writers are still penning epics. Q is an epic that stays with you long after you’ve closed the book. Briefly, Q is a historical thriller set in the sixteenth century and whose action revolves around the Reformation. The two protagonists are shadowy characters who change names as often as they change place. First, there is the “main” protagonist, an Anabaptist (a radical element of Protestantism) who spends his entire life fighting against the “order” of European authority. Following his trail is the even more shadowy figure known only as “Q,” an informant for Gianpietro Carafa, who later becomes Pope Paul IV in 1555. The two protagonists play a deadly game of cat and mouse, eventually culminating with the discovery of each other’s identity. Thus, we have a hero and his enemy. However, this novel is much more complex than a simple thriller set against the backdrop of the Reformation. What is important, and what is much more intriguing is how the authors depict power as emanating from behind the scenes, from the shadows. Consider the novel’s first lines: “On the first page it says: ‘In the Fresco I’m one of the figures in the background.’ The meticulous handwriting, no smudges, tiny. Names, dates, reflections. The notebook of the final fevered days.” Popes do not become Popes on their own, just as presidents are not elected based upon their intelligence. This is a story about those who lurk in the shadows of power—the straw men.
I like big, complex novels that make you think. Q is not your average, run of the mill summer read. It’s big and bulky—not a convenient size for the beach or even the plane. Yet, I’m afraid (and the dozens of best seller lists prove my point) that we in the United States have ceased to take fiction seriously. All too often we are looking for fiction that is completely escapist and thus, disposable. This novel marks a return to serious fiction in its most engaging form. A word about the last five pages of the novel, which are not only entertaining, they are prophetic. There are two things in this world that I cannot absolutely live without: books and coffee. The last five pages point toward a different kind of sovereign, one that will inevitably become much more powerful than any Pope, King, or government. What the last five pages successfully do is mention the coming sovereignty of Starbucks, a caffeinated sovereign that I, like much of the planet, worship. I’ve spent almost as much money on coffee as I have books. Treat yourselves to something substantial—read Q. Better yet, treat yourselves to a venti cappuccino while getting lost in the pages of this labyrinthine novel.