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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Luther Blissett

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To purchase Q

Title: Q
Author: Luther Blissett
Genre: Novel
Written: 2000 (Eng. 2003)
Length: 750 pages
Original in: Italian
Availability: Q - US
Q - UK
Q - Canada
L'Oeil de Carafa - France
Q - Deutschland
  • Original title: Q
  • Translated by Shaun Whiteside

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Our Assessment:

B : meanders along nicely enough, but a lot of pages and ultimately not quite enough substance

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 14/4/2003 Andreas Kilb
The Guardian . 31/5/2003 Sarah Dunant
NZZ . 20/2/2003 Maike Albath
New Statesman . 16/6/2003 Leo Benedictus
San Francisco Chronicle . 23/5/2004 Reagan Upshaw
TLS . 9/5/2003 Bharat Tandon
The Washington Post . 23/5/2004 David Liss

  Review Consensus:

  Moderately enthusiastic

  From the Reviews:
  • "Q ist ein Schlüsseltext. Das ist die Stärke und die entscheidende Schwäche des Buchs. (...) Aber der Gebrauch, den der Roman von den Mustern des Thrillergenres macht, ist seltsam inkonsequent. Er stellt seine Figuren auf, doch dann, wie ein Schachspieler, der sich an einer faszinierenden Variante ergötzt, ohne sie durchzuführen, läßt er sie stehen und redet von etwas anderem." - Andreas Kilb, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "If Q falters as a novel it is not because of any inherent bias. The problem is that at 650 pages it simply can't hold the narrative tension. And while there are early sections that are utterly compelling, towards the end, when the fighting gives way to a more traditional contest between the Papacy and the Inquisition, much of the earlier fervency and visceral power bleeds away." - Sarah Dunant, The Guardian

  • "Insgesamt ist Deftigkeit angesagt: Kriege, Handel, Bankgeschäft oder Inquisition, alles wird farbenprächtig ausgeschmückt und mit der erwartbaren Prise Erotik versehen." - Maike Albath, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "(E)ventually things settle into an enjoyable canter, rather like a Renaissance Bond novel, as our hero schmoozes, sword-fights and seduces his way around the glamorous locations of 16th-century Europe, escaping death by narrow margins and passing off some particularly lame quips as urbane banter. (...) Q 's erudition and intricacy are impressive, but stylistically it is very ordinary. It is a book with hundreds of names and not one character(...) I would be surprised if many readers make it past the first third." - Leo Benedictus, New Statesman

  • "Blissett moves his characters skillfully, pieces on a chessboard whose next square they cannot see, and keeps the reader in suspense until the final, fatal meeting." - Reagan Upshaw, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "Q (...) attempts a mud-spattered, paranoid reconstruction of the long aftermath of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, with ecclesiastical spies and soldiers pitted against Anabaptist subversives in various locations around the Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, the novel offers a long allegory about the alternative ideological possibilities of history -- the Reformation revisited for the "No Logo" generation. (.....) (W)here Q is best at set pieces, when it comes to moments of sheer inspiration, the original Luther Blissett still has the edge." - Bharat Tandon, Times Literary Supplement

  • "It sounds great, but readers should be aware going in that Q is more of an anti-novel than a novel. (...) Excluded from the jokes surrounding the origins of the book, the American reader must take the novel on its own terms, and those terms are both good and bad. At its best, Q displays an impressive knowledge of the Reformation, its ideas and its principal actors. It is a historical novel of the grand and sweeping sort, one that aims to capture not a life or a moment, but an era of pivotal importance. (...) Novelists should question the conventions of their work, and it is productive and interesting to see those conventions bent, broken and exposed, but Q's postmodern nose-thumbing has nothing terribly original in it." - David Liss, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Q is set in the 16th-century, the plot centering on the upheavals caused by the Reformation and the Catholic Church's response to it. It is narrated by a follower not of Luther but of the even more radical Thomas Müntzer. A man of many pseudonyms, the narrator chronicles his attempts to spread the (Anabaptist) word in various parts of Europe (mainly Germany, the Netherlands, and then Italy). The book covers some four decades, and all the while he is shadowed by the eponymous Q, another figure whose identity remains hidden, a man who works as "Carafa's eye", the spy of Cardinal Carafa who seeks to protect the Catholic Church from these new threats. Interspersed among the narrator's accounts are several letters by Q, as well as some diary-entries.
       The book is divided into three parts, each separated by a few years. The first focusses on what happened in Germany in the 1520s. Luther proves to be a disappointment, not living up to early ideals, but Thomas Müntzer is "more like Luther than Luther himself". A radical populist, Müntzer sought to empower the peasants; his ambition was more political than religious. In the Germany of that time, a country of city-states with few rulers who exerted much power over larger areas, it was possible to win over small pieces of the country. Müntzer's proto-communist ideas were well-received among a disenfranchised and sorely abused peasantry, and he was able to establish several communities run along the egalitarian lines he espoused. The narrator describes these experiments -- and also their ultimate failure in the face of powers that could not tolerate the spread of this ideology (and a few self-serving personalities who abused the system). Müntzer's successes and his terrible end are recounted, the narrator one of the few to escape the experiment that went so awry.
       The second section finds brings the narrator to Antwerp, more than a decade after his escape. Here he finds himself in sympathetic company again, brought into a proto-Fourierist community governed by egalitarian principles Müntzer would likely have approved of. He recounts old adventures and gets involved in some new ones, the most interesting being the most dangerous and ambitious: an attempt to subvert the financial system itself (or at least fully take advantage of it) by counterfeiting the most trusted bills of exchange in the Europe of that time, letters of credit issued by the Fuggers. Capitalism, if not the root of all evil, is at least seen to be at the root of a hell of a lot of it, and a proper blow to the system might just bring it tumbling down.
       Once again, not everything goes the way the narrator and his friends hope, and the third part jumps a few years ahead to Italy, where the narrator installs himself to spread the Anabaptist word and cause more unrest. It's not money that is the prime mover now (though he has plenty of that), but the power of the easily-spread word itself:

The printing press is the business of the moment. And it isn't just important from the point of view of profit; it conveys ideas, it fertilises minds and, very significantly, it reinforces relations between people.
       The chosen volume is something called The Benefit of Christ Crucified:
It's a cunning little book, designed to stir up endless hornets' nests, because it's ambiguous in its content and expressed in a language that everyone can understand. A masterpiece of dissimulation, and it's already causing all manner of dissent.
       With a variety of allies the narrator spreads the book and the Anabaptist message. Italy -- another place where power is wielded only regionally, with many city-states competing against each other -- is ideal ground to engage in such subversive activity, but so close to the Vatican home it also becomes of great concern to the Catholic Church. Threatened from many sides -- Luther, Calvin, Henry VIII all undermining Catholic hegemony -- the Catholic Church (and specifically Carafa and his spy) try to crack down hard on those who spread these unacceptable ideas.
       The novel uses actual historical events, often impressively (Müntzer's rise and fall, the election of Pope Julius III), as the foundation for this sweeping saga. It all comes, eventually, down to the expected confrontation between the hunter and the hunted, but that aspect of the novel -- the personal enmity and betrayal, boiling (un)steadily for four decades -- isn't among the most convincing, and makes for a decent but somewhat anticlimactic finale (though it does come with a nice twist or two).
       The novel is an odd mix of adventure story and programmatic text, and while it's admirable in holding up ideals of personal freedom, equality, and justice (and showing the danger of the cult of any personality) it tries to do too much to really convince on any level (ideologically or literarily). Few of the characters stand out, and many are indistinguishable. The great sweep of the novel means that it covers so much time and territory that an enormous number of characters are largely left behind. The novel moves along at a good pace -- very short chapters, often very short paragraphs, a lot of dialogue -- and there are good adventures and descriptions along the way, but it feels surprisingly insubstantial for a book of such volume. The writing is uneven (perhaps to be expected with four authors at work on it), and there's little that's really fine and quite a bit that is jarring (Frederick the Wise referring to his subalterns as "absolute dickheads", etc.)
       Entertaining and interesting chunks, and a lot of filler-material make for an uneven and ultimately not entirely satisfying read.

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Q: Reviews: Thomas Müntzer:
  • Thomas Müntzer at Biographisch-Bibliographisches Kirchenlexikon (German)
'Luther Blissett': Other books by Luther Blissett (Wu Ming) under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       'Luther Blissett' is the pseudonym of an Italian four-man author-collective; they now call themselves 'Wu Ming'.

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