As promised, a follow-up entry on Q, the hugely enjoyable historical novel I mentioned briefly a couple of posts ago. This is the historical novel as it was always meant to be: densely packed with historically verifiable detail, but not at the expense of narrative drive; a plot that, even as it sprawls across several decades, is always tightly-written, but never edges out the ideas that inform it; ideas expressed by characters that never seem forcibly ventriloquized. In truth, the novel is not terribly well-written: of course, the stylistic infelicities are more likely to be the fault of the translator than of the original authors; but the blame for the unevenness the reader senses as the narrative jumps from expository dialogue to extended present-tense narrative to self-consciously political diatribe must be laid at the feet of the Luther Blissett collective. But has there ever been a truly great collaborative novel?
The events that inspire the novel notionally begin at the moment when Luther nailed his 95 theses to the cathedral door at Wittenberg. In fact this event and its immediate aftermath are not the main focus of the narrative. Q takes as its subject those other Reformers, those forgotten revolutionaries, history’s losers: the Reformers who thought Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and the rest simply didn’t go far enough. The novel does a great job communicating the sheer hatred these people felt for Luther, that fat monk in the pay of the German princes, more hateful even than the Papists because he betrayed his own cause. This novel does not deal with points of theology; it is unabashedly political: its nameless protagonist is always more concerned with overthrowing the ruling elite than with promoting Faith in Christ through the Word of God. This, of course is entirely in tune with the spirit of the age: the Reformation could only happen in such a politically unstable atmosphere, the atmosphere that made possible the Peasants’ Revolt in the 1520s. More than that: because religion was so pervasive at every level of human life, and because (pre-Reformation, of course) it was so much based on superstition and unquestioning acceptance of the power structures that supported it, any revolutionary movement could only win followers by arguing points that actually affected people’s lives. We’re not dealing with abstract questions like transubstantiation or the Divine Truth of this or that book of the New Testament: we’re talking about social revolution, redistribution of wealth, the abolition of private property.
Appropriately (and this is essential for a historical novel to ‘work’, I believe) the novel’s protagonist and antagonist are not major figures of the period. In the novel Luther himself makes only the briefest of appearances, as does the great Philip Melancthon (who is disappointingly portrayed as something of an out-of-touch head-in-the-clouds intellectual). Other figures, perhaps less well-known even to students of the period, but nevertheless hugely influential on the political and theological developments they lived through, feature prominently: the incorruptible, inspirational magister Thomas Müntzer; the Anabaptist preachers that won and then ruined the city of Münster, Jan Matthys and Jan of Leyden, the Catholic cardinal and head of the Inquisition Giovanni Pietro Carafa, later Pope Paul IV. The two main characters, however, are not only historical nonentities: they are literally nameless. The anonymous protagonist takes on various names (and roles) in the course of the novel; and Q (the ultimate cipher, traceable only to qui quae quod), his rival, the Papal spy working for Carafa, is any never more or less knowable than the roles he plays. Gert from the Well, Lot (who never looked back), Qoèlet, Gresbeck, Ecclesiastes: so many masks for the ‘figures in the background of the fresco’. History is not only inhabited by the makers of history.