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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Altai: A Novel - Wu Ming, Shaun Whiteside

This is a novel set within the historical events in the Mediterranean from 1569 through 1571, beginning with the arsenal fire of Venice, moving on to the household of rich Jewish trader Joseph Nasi in Constantinople, from there on to the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus, on to the massacre following the surrender of Famagusta, then to the naval Battle of Lepanto, and thence back to Constantinople for a description of the consequences of the war.


The story follows a fiction character Emmanuele De Zante through all these events. Emmanuele is half Jewish by his mother, but he has been able to live most of his life as a good Catholic in Venice where he has risen in government ranks as a trusted spy catcher and agent. But he is forced to flee to the Ottomans (enemies of Venice) when his true identity is discovered because of his missing a short piece of skin.


At this time in history the Ottoman Empire seems much more open to religious tolerance than the inquisition filled Spanish and Italian lands. Interestingly, there is a thriving Jewish community in Constantinople filled with refugees driven from Spain, Portugal and the Italian Peninsula. Some of these refugees are quite wealthy and includes individuals such as Joseph Nasi who helps finance the Ottoman military forces in the conquest of Cyprus.


According to this book’s story Joseph Nasi was planning to be King of Cyprus and intended to set up a kingdom that would serve as a Jewish homeland and would be tolerant of other religions. After the successful invasion he was allowed to keep his titles, but little power came with them. So his dream wasn’t achieved, but it is a historical fact that the Jewish community on Cyprus continued to thrive under Ottoman rule.


The reason I was interested in this book is because it is billed as a sequel to the novel Q, a novel about the Reformation. I wanted to know what became of the militant Anabaptist character in the novel Q. (Proto-Communist revolutionary 300 years prior to Karl Marx is better description.) He had managed to be present at every bloody confrontation of the era including the Battle of Frankenhausen where he served beside Thomas Müntzer on the side of the revolting peasants. From there he moved on to the Münster Rebellion, managed to escape alive to find refuge in the low country (Holland and Friesland), and then escaped to Italy where he preached seditious sermons to peasants and connived with the Pope selection process. This character used so many names in the novel Q that I wasn’t sure I’d recognized him in this book. But sure enough, he shows up this time as an old man who has spent a life time fighting for liberty for oppressed poor people everywhere. His latest conflict with the authorities was a rebellion in Yemen against the Ottomans. In this book he functions as an old man known by all the pirates and underworld types whose cooperation was required for some of the plot's activities.


This book as well as Q were written by committee, not a single person. From the narrative I have concluded that the committee is made up of horny male anarchists.