Manituana, the clash of civilizations and George Bush’s ancestors.

Interview from “Il Venerdi di Repubblica” March 23, 2006.
A novel set at the end of the 18th century in America, with the Indians who experienced the war of independence on the losing side. The young collective that broke through with “Q” returns with a plunge back into the past. The distant past.

By Loredana Lipperini

Eight years ago when Wu Ming (who still called themselves Luther Blissett) explained how to write as a group, they used this image: “It’s like with Jazz: great collective spirit, group arrangements and individual solos.” From that method a first novel, “Q”, was born, selling 250 000 copies. With the same philosophy (collective writing, renunciation of real names in favour of a pseudonym, no photographs, no television appearances) then came “54”, various “solo” books and a screenplay (“Lavorare con lentezza” or “Radio Alice”). And now the third and most ambitious test for the five writers, “Manituana”, recounts the war between North America and England from the point of view of the Iroquois Indians who sided with King George.

Why does a group of Italian storytellers decide to recount the birth of the American nation? Furthermore, why put not only the conventional image of the Indians on its head, but also the successive, “politically correct” one?

We rejected the second vision as well, the “alternative” one, a little because it regards another historical and geographical context (the conquest of the west during the 19th century), a little because we’re not interested in the cliché of the “innocent” Indian who’s in harmony with nature, technologically backwards and a victim sacrificed on the altar of progress. Things are more complicated than that, and we tried not to simplify them.
At any rate it’s completely within the Italian and European tradition to deal with America, pushing the boundaries of the cage of archetypes and stereotypes that America has constructed around its heart. And the gamble of working on a trans-Atlantic imaginary framework is certainly not “hardly Italian”. Sergio Leone and company found the philosophers’ stone within the Western genre: they worked on the most worn out clichés and transformed them into gold. A film like “Once Upon a Time in the West” – written, scripted, directed, photographed, edited and scored by Italians – is a potent narration and representation of America, of its conscience, of it’s quintessential nature. Today more than ever, with the Atlantic having widened due to the choices made by the Bush Administration, it’s vital to question ourselves on the complex relationship between us and America.

In “Manituana” the historical characters transform into literary heroes with great emotional force: how did you construct them?

In the initial phase of the documentation we found ourselves dealing with characters with complex biographies, novel-like, romantic in the 18th century sense of the term. Frontier lives, characters straddling worlds and cultures: it wasn’t difficult to transform these figures into literary heroes. And so the biographies served as a breeding ground to develop the non-historical characters, the imaginary ones. We tried to render on the page a sense of complex relationships on different levels; we searched for the common thread in existential and apparently divergent trajectories while looking for the motives for detachment and difference in those destinies that seemed similar.

Above all the women play a determining role, even from the political point of view. To what do we owe this homage?

We’re well aware that we’re an all male collective, we’re aware of the difficulties involved in giving depth to female characters and we know it’s not easy. In this case historical reality came to our rescue. The Iroquois society had very strong and deeply rooted matriarchal components. Clan membership – a foundation of the social organization of the Iroquois as it cut across tribes and nations – was determined by matrilineal descent. Furthermore the Iroquois women wielded a precious and strategic power: adoption. The fate of prisoners of war depended on them: they could decide their death, as compensation for children and husbands fallen in battle, or ask their assimilation into the tribe, for the same reason. It was much more common for this to happen. They weren’t large populations, they needed bodies to work the land or to go hunting and fishing. But adoption rendered the prisoner to all intents and purposes a member of the nation and of the Clan, with every right and duty that that entailed. Many important leaders had been adopted prisoners.

What does a story set in the 18th century tell us about our present?

It’s difficult to reduce a novel to one key reading. In a sense telling the story of the birth of the United States already means dealing with the present and with America as a global problem. You could say that Manituana recounts the story of the disappearance of a hybrid reality, crushed by the logic of the clash of civilizations and the birth of a new nation. The foundation of the Untied States didn’t occur at the expense of the “noble savages”, as an edulcorated version of history states, but at the expense of a hybrid culture, interethnic, politically complex and full of contradictions. If then we consider that the Americans of the last quarter of the 18th century were nothing other than Europeans emigrated across the Atlantic, we quickly arrive at grappling with the foundations of our own civilization, and therefore of our globalize present. The West not only in the geographical sense, but in the political and cultural sense too. It represents, that is, the extreme consequences of the impact of “whites” on the world.

With the use of an uncanny street slang in the book, we find ourselves coming across a homage to Burgess’ “A Clockwork Orange”. This is one of the indications of a very considered linguistic effort: could you explain the way you worked on language?

We often quote Paco Ignacio Taibo II, according to whom experimentation has to be the invisible seam that holds the story together. There’s nothing unknowing in our method of laying out words and phrases, but our goal is not “pretty writing”. If you look closely at our sentences, you’ll see that we try to obtain a subtle alteration in the syntax, and shift the meaning of words, even just a little bit. Often it’s enough to remove a “mi” or a “ti” to obtain a sentence that “vibrates” and remains suspended like a hovercraft, a millimeter above the page. This should never be an end in itself, rather functional to what we want to relay, and as discrete as possible. The less the reader is aware of the strangeness of certain choices, the better it is. Often, later, it’s the translators who point out to us the difficulty of some passages that in Italy seemed simple.

“Manituana” doesn’t end with the book: it’s accompanied by “parallel” short stories on-line, and others will come, some even written by readers. Not only this: the site integrates the writing with sounds, images, maps. What’s your aim?

To tell a story is to discover a world. The pages of a book are one of the magic portals that open it up. You can chose to keep the other portals closed or to push all of them open, in a sign of hospitality. Once again it’s about deciding whether to offer a universe to contemplate, untouchable in it’s presumed beauty and perfection, or to invite others to transform it, to develop its potential. It’s not just an aesthetic choice: if we believe that men and women together are able to better the world, we’ll do everything so that our readers can better our stories, with every means necessary.

Manituana, the clash of civilizations and George Bush’s ancestors.
wu ming · Manituana · Manituana, the clash of civilizations and George Bush’s ancestors. · 04 December 2023