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54: A Novelby Wu Ming
Synopses & Reviews
In Hollywood, Cary Grant has grown weary of cinema's constant glamour, but Her Majesty's Secret Service will break his malaise with a bizarre diplomatic mission. In Naples, Lucky Luciano fixes horse races and launches the global heroin trade. And in Bologna, a bartender searches for true love and his missing communist father.
Set during the height of the Cold War-with the world divided into East and West — 54 features Italian partisans, KGB agents, Parisian lowlifes, and cameos by David Niven, Marshal Tito, and Grace Kelly. Wu Ming brings us a cinematic romp that is by turns edgy social satire and modern comic send up.
"The midlife crisis of Cary Grant, the founding of the KGB and the Neapolitan years of mafioso Lucky Luciano are just three of the plot lines woven into this dense, playful and always surprising literary behemoth set mostly in the year of the book's title, at the height of the Cold War. Anchoring the tale with a relatively conventional narrative is a young Bolognese man named Robespierre (Pierre), who embarks on a transcontinental odyssey to find his father, Vittorio Capponi, a former Mussolini loyalist who left the Italian army to join the Communists in Yugoslavia. Meanwhile, Britain's spy agency MI6 approaches Cary Grant (who's in a career slump) with a bizarre proposal: the role of Yugoslavian leader Marshal Tito in a propaganda biopic. It seems impossible that the multitudinous names and story threads could converge, but, deliciously, they do — in Yugoslavia, where Grant meets Tito, Pierre finds his father, and Luciano's driver Steve 'Cement' Zollo tangles with the KGB, which is about to pull off a big hit. The latest joint effort (after the novel Q) from Wu Ming — a collective of five Italian intellectuals who named themselves 'anonymous' in Mandarin — offers political commentary-cum-complicated escapism for the brainiac reader. (July)" Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"What do Marshal Tito, Cary Grant and the British secret intelligence service have in common? For a brief moment, nothing less than the fate of the free world lies in their hands, at least in the satirical new novel '54.' The year is 1954, and Grant, with his movie career on the rocks, has been recruited by the British to persuade the communist leader of Yugoslavia to come out from behind the Iron... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) Curtain. The stakes are high. The Soviets have exploded their first hydrogen bomb, much of Europe is wobbling between communism and democracy, and Sen. Joseph McCarthy is targeting the stars of Hollywood. But Cary Grant and Marshal Tito? The fate of the free world? If it all sounds a little absurd, it's meant to. The book's authors, a group of five Italian intellectuals who write under the group pseudonym Wu Ming — 'no name' in Mandarin — don't try to hide their pleasure in the plot's ludicrousness. 'We are approaching you as an actor and an ... elegant man,' a faceless spymaster purrs to the well-groomed Hollywood star. Cinema, the spymaster explains, is the key to the hearts of Westerners. The mission, should Grant choose to accept it, is simple: He will sneak into Yugoslavia, meet Tito, then star in a sympathetic biopic. Once the menacing communist sees that moviegoing audiences like him, he'll be more inclined to turn toward the West, and an early battle in the Cold War will be won. Nothing goes as planned, of course. And even before Grant sets off on his secret mission, the story dives into a bewildering thicket of twists and subplots. There is Robespierre Capponi, an Italian dandy living in Bologna, who heads off in search of his long-lost father, missing in Yugoslavia. His brother, Nicola, owns a bar full of grouchy old communists who spend their days arguing about cycling, soccer and the atom bomb. Anti-fascist poets in Trieste and hatchet-faced Mafiosi in Naples bump into the likes of Grace Kelly and Alfred Hitchcock. David Niven makes a cameo. Oh, and the newly formed KGB comes along for the ride, trying to put a stop to the whole charade. All of these threads come together, miraculously, in the end. Even so, '54' never manages to be more than the sum of its parts. Four of the book's five authors, under the pseudonym Luther Blissett, also wrote the novel 'Q,' a historical romp through the Protestant Reformation that was often overwhelmed by obscure references and wooden dialogue. In '54,' they suffer from the same problems. The book's idiosyncrasies often have the feel of inside jokes missed. One of its starring roles, after all, goes to a television with its own internal monologue. 'He felt something stirring inside,' the TV thinks to itself at one point, 'even though he was not plugged in.' Readers can be forgiven for not laughing out loud. The plot, in all of its complexity, occasionally feels aimless, and the translation from the Italian is littered with hackneyed phrases. Take this far-from-steamy reunion of two lovers: 'He kissed her and stroked her hair, and they exchanged a long kiss, almost like one in a film.' The authors seem unwilling to let any semblance of irony go unmentioned. When Tito and Grant meet, the occasion is swamped with commentary. 'Tito and Cary Grant converse amicably,' the authors write. 'Can you imagine a more surreal scene?' Same goes when Grant is being offered the job by the British. The soon-to-be spy can't help but interrupt a discussion of world politics with the most cliched of espionage-thriller phrases. 'Erm, gentlemen, this is all very interesting,' Grant says, 'but the obvious question is, "Where do I come in?"' Still, '54' has its funny moments. The book is cheerful about the untidiness of postwar Italy. The trains don't run on time, the cops have all been paid off, and certain movie stars' coats tend to disappear in coffee shops at the most inopportune times. This, though, is what makes life amusing. 'Italy is a boot, we've tried to polish it,' as one underworld character puts it, 'but the place for a boot is always in the mud.' In the end, it becomes clear that the joke, ultimately, is on the book's characters. 'Life isn't like it is in the films,' one woman muses sorrowfully, 'you don't bump into Cary Grant on the train, he doesn't fall in love with you and take you to America.' Except, of course, in '54,' Cary Grant really is just around the next corner, preparing his hair, looking suave as can be — and trying his darnedest to save the world from disaster. If only he had been able to save this novel from the same fate." Reviewed by World Report, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Bullets fly, knives are inserted into backs, intrigues unfold, consciousness is raised under a 'lysergic sun' and a dazzling array of major and minor players — the Emperor Bao Dai, Marilyn Monroe, Lucky Luciano, Hitchcock, David Niven, Tito — passes by....[A] rewarding beach book for grownups." Kirkus Reviews
"Written by members of an anonymous arts collective....[A] mix of literary thriller and sophisticated satire." Booklist
From the authors of the bizarre and extraordinary Q comes this equally bizarre and powerful thriller. Set in the former Yugoslavia in the 1950s, the new novel by the members of the Luther Blissett Project, now calling themselves the Wu Ming Foundation, tells a story of the intrigue, spying and paranoia around the hiring of Cary Grant to play the lead role in a Yugoslav propaganda film. Truly bizarre, truly culty.
About the Author
Wu Ming means "no name" — and therefore "anonymous" — in Mandarin Chinese. Four of the five members of the Wu Ming Foundation wrote the novel Q under the pseudonym Luther Blissett. They live in Bologna.
A few words from Wu Ming:
Table of Contents
The Background 3
Part One: Šipan 23
Part Two: McGuffin Electric 297
End Titles 543
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