Over in Italy this summer I picked up a book totally at random called Q. It’s a fat historical novel about the Protestant Reformation, written by four anonymous authors under the name Luther Blissett. Its protagonist is an Anabaptist theology student who becomes involved in various movements during the Reformation. The antagonist, a papal informer, is simply named Q.
Real characters and made-up ones romp through this giant tome of a book, including Thomas Müntzer (who inspired the Peasants’ War, when peasants in Germany rose up against the aristocracy, a war that the narrator is intimately involved in) and Pietro Perna (the Venetian printer who published Protestant thinkers). Rebellions and movements come and go; Q tries to chase them down; the narrator, somehow, keeps escaping and resurfacing in a new place, reinventing himself, landing yet again at the center of the action.
Inevitably, rebellions seem to turn as violent as the regimes they fight against. Fighting capitalism requires cheating others. Maintaining the security of a new state requires implementing a new totalitarian apparatus. The narrator kills, and kills, and kills, and many of his allies die bloody deaths. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
The book is inherently interesting because of its authors’ nonconformist approach, hiding their identities and giving permission to reprint the book non-commercially. They apparently have an inherent sympathy for the cause of the Anabaptists and other Protestants who were persecuted and who dared to question the structure of society. And needless to say, they’re highly erudite. The ideas are fascinating; the writing, on the other hand, is slightly clunky (although it’s in translation, so it can be forgiven).
I wanted to love this book, but I did get bored about halfway through. I lost track of the giant panoply of characters, and by the time Q’s identity was revealed in an impressively elaborate Unusual Suspects-like twist, I honestly didn’t even care. Hilary Mantel, with her limpid and ultra-elaborate prose, and Jamesian focus on human consciousness, is more my speed when it comes to historical thrillers. But if you’re willing to read a 635-page book about events you definitely don’t still remember from AP European History just for the sheer abundance of ideas it explores, read Q.