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Thursday, May 30, 2013

"Altai" by Wu Ming (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

"When Q was first published in 1999, it was an international sensation; returning to the same world of that extraordinary novel Altai is a captivating story of betrayal, beliefs and the clash of civilizations.

When a fire breaks out in the Arsenal of Venice in 1569, everyone suspects Joseph Nasi, number-one enemy of the republic. But it is the enigmatic Emmanuele De Zante, spy catcher and agent of the Venetian secret service, who finds himself in jail accused of treason, having been betrayed by his lover.

When De Zante is offered the chance to escape, he embarks on an odyssey that takes him to Salonica, the Jerusalem of the Balkans, and from there, all the way to the Sultan’s palace in Constantinople. Spiraling through a series of deadly political games, De Zante’s voyage will test his loyalty and force him to question even his own identity. Together, De Zante and his companions head toward a conflict that threatens the very nature of civilization.

A historical epic spanning a continent scarred by war, Altai went straight into the bestsellers list when first published in Italy. It is a coruscating portrait of the divided world—east meets west—in the sixteenth century, where the great empires of the Republic of Venice and the Ottomans are on the verge of an epoch-making conflict. In this dramatic landscape, the authors’ collective Wu Ming creates a powerful narrative of danger, identity, and adventure."

"Altai" is a superb historical novel that continues the themes of Q - what does freedom for the oppressed mean, how one can try and achieve it and why it is worth trying even when it seems patently hopeless - and we even get to see Q's multifaceted hero of many names a little more though he is not the main hero/narrator here.

Altai takes place from 1569-1571 - so it is much more compressed in time than the sprawling Q, whose action happened from 1519-1551 with an epilogue in 1555 - and this time it has as main story the fate of Jewish refugees from all over Europe who find in Joseph Nasi a protector at the Sultan's court

Also known by his Spanish name, Joao Miquez, we have already been acquainted with Joseph in the earlier novel, though here he comes truly on his own as a larger than life character with great dreams and maybe with even the possibility to see at least some come to fruition.  

His aunt/mother-in-law, Dona Gracia, who was such a luminous character in Q, appears also briefly as her dying wishes bring the German/Ismail/Tiziano back from his desert exile to help Nasi with his great dream - build a state for the oppressed, so especially for the Jews of Europe but not only...

The narrator of Altai who starts as Emanuele Zante, agent of the Venetian's inquisition, a Jew hater, hunter of Ottoman's agents and for whom Nasi is the "Great Satan" is the son of a Venetian sea captain and a Jewish girl from Ragusa. Living as Manuel Cardoso for his first 15 years in the Jewish community in Raguza, community which ostracized his mother for "immorality", he starts hating his relatives and neighbors and leaps at the opportunity to become his father's heir as Emmanuele Zante with a carefully recreated past, when his "legitimate" sons being dead, the old man turns to him for comfort...

Of course there is one physical characteristic that marked him as a Jew, so Emanuele who became the #1 agent of the Venetian secret police never frequents brothels but prefers to hire a courtesan for his own exclusive use, hoping the money he pays her are enough to keep his secret; for a while it works, but...

And so it starts, with Emanuele hunted by the Venetian as a secret Jew and traitor, reluctantly and then openly embracing "his" people and finally finding in Joseph Nasi a kindred soul who more or less adopts him - Joseph openly known as an intimate of Sultan Selim II has no interest in women - while in return, Manuel helps advance his cause with his skills and training.

Of course the ultimate weakness of Joseph's plans that people keep pointing to him is that everything depends on Ottoman might and favor and like his biblical counterpart and the Pharaoh, Joseph may ride today high in the Sultan's favor, but nobody knows what tomorrow will bring...

Great, great story... 


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