What I have to do.
Screams in my ears already bursting from cannon fire, bodies crashing into me. My throat choked with bloody, sweaty dust, my coughs tearing me apart.
Terror on the faces of the fleeing people. Bandaged heads, crushed limbs . . . I’m constantly turning around: Elias is behind me. Huge, pushing his way through the crowd. He has Magister Thomas over his shoulders, lifeless.
Where is the omnipresent Lord? His flock is being slaughtered.
Q begins in the midst of a brutal massacre, sinking the reader deep into the mortal conflict between devout belief and passionate rebellion which engulfed Europe during the Reformation of the 1500s. Sparked by the actions of Martin Luther, a mere friar bold enough to challenge some of the most fundamental precepts of Catholicism, what follows are thirty-eight years of brutality and suffering which are effectively brought to a close by a single death, both meaningless and meaningful.
Here all we meet are humanly flawed. The experiences of those in authority are distant and largely unknowable; the kings and princes, priests, merchants and civic dignitaries, who demand unthinking obedience or unthinking faith. Their challengers, a few tutors and students fired with idealism, would-be champions of the people, prove less effective than those who truly spring from the ranks of the ordinary: workers, farmers, craftsmen and whores, heavily subjugated by both the dominant faith and the harsh nature of life at this time in Europe’s history; their victories, such as they are, are similarly earthy and fleeting, but satisfying for as long as they last.
I get to my feet and start picking up the chain, I don’t even notice myself shouting. “Hey, that thing you said . . . About Jesus Christ and the shit-eating merchants . . .”
He turns around, astonished, almost as astonished as the others. The scene freezes, as though printed on a page, I nearly lose my balance. I must look like a bloody idiot.
“Yeah, I agree with you completely! And now take the advice of a fellow brother: get your head down.”
The giant who thought he’d drowned me turns purple, he moves ahead, come on, come on, now I’ve wrapped the chain around my waist and I’ve got the bucket in my hand, come on, fellow, come here and lose that big fucking head you’ve got on your shoulders.
It’s a dull sound, a dry thud, just one, that dents the metal and sends a rain of teeth flying through the air. He goes down like an empty sack, without a groan, spitting out bits of tongue.
I start swinging the chain round, faster and faster, showing these fine gentlemen just how annoying an Anabaptist can be. The bucket hits heads, backs, it’s spinning further and further from me, the chain’s cutting into my hands, but I see them go down, crouch on the ground, run towards the door without quite making it, the Bucket Justice is implacable, round, round, faster and faster, I’m not holding it anymore, it’s dragging me round now, it’s the hand of God, I could swear, sirs, the God that you’ve been pissing the hell out of. He’s down, another one, where did you think you were going to hide, you stupid rich piss artist?
A jolt, the bucket’s come to a halt, stuck in the branches of a little tree that nearly goes down too.
Bookended by letters sent under the titular pseudonym of a spy to his master within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, this truly epic novel tells the story of another man, who survives one rebellion, one slaughter, one atrocity after another, masked by a series of identities whose original we never learn; who witnesses and demonstrates strength, humour and humanity in adversity, wins and loses friendships and loves, crawls through mud and blood in about equal measure; but he also drags himself up and out of the death and obscurity to carve a life of significance, coming to share the confidences of some of the world’s most powerful figures – and is finally driven further, to unveil and revenge himself on the man responsible for a lifetime of bitter defeats at the hands of the church.
Pursuing and pursued through Germany, Holland and Italy, the at first unnamed protagonist goes through a striking conversion, from a wide-eyed youth dazzled by the philosophical wordplay of the religious super-stars of his time, to a disillusioned adult bearing a scar for every battle lost, experiencing firsthand the horrors of medieval war and the joys that a more humanist interpretation of Christianity can offer. He is plagued by the memories of those who fell pursuing it, friends whose names he even assumes at times himself in order to survive as he grows from a follower to a leader.
He throws himself on his knees, as though his legs will no longer support him.
“Baptise me, Brother Titian, because the splashing they gave me as a boy means nothing to me now. Baptise me, even with the dirty water from this well: my faith will be enough to purify it.”
I look around: everyone is standing motionless, open-mouthed, apart from Brother Vittorio, who shakes his head disconsolately. I have already done enough as far as this place is concerned. It would be better not to risk excessively blatant gestures.
“You can baptise yourself, Brother Adalberto. You’re the witness to your own conversion.”
He looks at me with an expression of ecstasy, then plunges himself face first into the muddy water and starts rolling around in it, shouting at the top of his voice.
Rather blatant, all in all.
Questions of identity are at the core of the story and are a subject close to the hearts of the authors, a quartet of Italians participating in the occasionally anonymous, and I understand now defunct, Luther Blissett Project (well, if not actually dead then “moved on” – see footnote). One might fear that creating a novel to paraphrase the ideology of a pseudo-political, pseudo-anarchist, pseudo-collective might be a struggle; who knows, maybe it was, but even given the low background knowledge and interest in religion which I brought to the feast it reads with engrossing clarity. The text shows no sign of schizophrenia despite the many minds it issued from – possibly because it has been filtered into English through only one, that of Shaun Whiteside – but there is a clue.
The last time I read a book with chapters this short I really didn’t enjoy it (and it was also on a religious theme, guess which one). Here the hundred plus chapters, not to mention the innumerable secret letters from Carafa’s Eye, each deliver a punch or a punchline – and when excerpts of the spy’s diary began to show as well I felt a genuine thrill, as of closing in on a long sought target myself. The principle exception to this rule, the central climax of the revolution at Münster, runs to all of a mighty twenty pages but it is awesome stuff, a heart-pounder to rival Hollywood in the middle of a thriller of ideas.
Fair to say I loved it from start to finish. It ends on nine of the wisest words in literature. I won’t spoil them for those wise enough to read it, which I will be doing again before the year is out. Q has immediately become one of my favourite reads of all time.
I have nothing further to say except that I kiss your Lordship’s hands, imploring one to whom I owe such unbounded respect, to let me continue to lend these poor eyes to the cause of God.
Your Lordship’s faithful servant,
As per their Creative Commons request, please note that all quotes are taken from Q, written by the collective authorial entity calling itself Luther Blissett, about whom more can be learned here (and it’s well worth taking a look): www.wumingfoundation.com