Socialist Worker

A swashbuckling story about 16th century European spies

The new novel Altai, the sequel to Q, is a thrilling tale of intrigue and revolt that questions how the powerful justify their actions says?Simon Basketter

Issue No. 2356

The narrator of Altai begins the book with one name and ends it with another. 

He suffers uncertainty about who he really is. At one point he describes himself as “A Jew disguised as a Christian dressed up as a Jew, my soul turned inside-out like a pair of trousers”. 

Nothing is quite as it seems in the book, the latest by the Wu Ming Foundation, yet it is a compelling page-turner.

The action in Altai begins in 1569. At this time the narrator, Emanuele de Zante, is a loyal and successful security agent serving the Venetian Republic.

The qualities that make De Zante a good spy also make him hard to like. 

He confesses that he “never hesitated to turn my back on myself. 

“There was nothing true in me to turn it on.” He loses his one chance of love because of an addiction to mistrust.

For what it’s worth, “Altai” is a type of hybrid falcon. It is white and “streaked with a rainy pattern of dark grey patches” and appears then flutters off inconsequentially.

Altai is a sequel to Q. Both are tales of intrigue and revolt.

El Alemain, the Anabaptist rebel who took part in numerous battles against the powerful in Q, shows up in the Constantinople of Altai. He is ready to take on the church once again. 


De Zante is falsely accused of sabotage and flees Venice. 

Arriving in Constantinople he rediscovers his Jewish faith. He joins a plan to create a refuge for all of those persecuted by the Church. 

Along the way the book examines sexuality, power, freedom and war. But it is not a dry tract—it is an adventurous thriller. 

If anything there is a risk of seeing too many allegories, intended or otherwise, with today. 

There is a powerful description of the battle for Cyprus and the desolation from the siege. The butchery is graphic and disturbing. It raises the question of whether the ends can justify the means.

Too often the actual work of the authors, the Wu Ming Foundation, gets lost behind their backstory. They are the political pransker polemicists of the Italian left.

But at its core the book is fine swashbuckling storytelling and a great revolutionary romp

Altai by Wu Ming foundation, Verso

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