2.08.2014

Altai, by Wu Ming

I received a free copy of this book to review from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. 

Altai
Wu Ming is the pseudonym adopted by four Italian writers. Altai is their second book, after Q. Both are set in sixteenth century, in the chaotic world of empires and city states and religions and Reformation. Altai opens in 1568, when Venice's arsenal explodes one bright morning. Emmuele de Zante leaps into action to find the culprits. When he reveals to his boss that it was just an attempt by the arsenal workers to get a raise, de Zante is told that Venice demands a "perfect culprit." The explosion must have been the work of Ottoman agents. Our hero realizes that he has to flee because that perfect culprit is himself.

De Zante returns to Ragusa, where he was born but cannot stay because there are Venetian agents all over the Adriatic looking for him. Before long, he is "rescued" by men working for someone he believes is his nemesis, Yossef Nasi. De Zante has no choice but to work for Nasi and spill his secrets to the Ottoman Sultan's adviser. Strange as it might seem, de Zante finds himself while working for Nasi. He doesn't have to hide his Jewish roots. He is free to take back his original name: Manuel Cardoso. Cardoso's skills has a spycatcher and investigator stand him in good stead in his new work.

Battle of Lepanto, 1571
Nasi has great plans. These great plans involve arranging for the Sultan's janissaries to invade Cyprus. Not everyone is keen on the plan, but Cardoso helps his rescuer the best he can. Nicosia falls, but Cardoso is sent as an observer when Famagusta puts up unexpected resistance. In Constantinople, Cardoso found a place where Jews and Christians and Muslims could live together in peace, if not harmony. He had to hide his origins in Venice. But in Famagusta, however, the scales fall from his eyes when the commander of the Ottoman army takes revenge on the people of Famagusta for their losses. As I read this part of Altai, a name from the history books floated through my mind. Lepanto could not be far off in the future. Knowing what I do about Lepanto, I knew that things could not end will for Nasi. I was not expecting the twist at the very end. I am always taken by surprise at European writers' willingness to write an unhappy ending.

When I finished Altai, I was surprised to find that a book of this scope and richness was less than 300 pages long. The chapters are brisk, but the language is so evocative that I could see Venice and Constantinople in my mind as I read. The dialog is marvelous. We've lost the habit of speaking in metaphors and allusions, I think. The dialog is also peppered with Italian and Turkish and the myriad languages of the Balkans, to provide even more verisimilitude. There is so much crammed into Altai and it all sounds like the work of one author. I'm astounded by how well the four authors of Wu Ming work together. I highly recommend Altai.

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