This was our return event for the Italian collective of writers, Wu Ming, whose novel Q we had so admired a couple of years ago. This time we confronted their counter-history of the 1775 American rebellion against the British Crown, told from the point of view of the Mohawk Indians, Manituana.
The plot follows the vicissitudes of war-chief Joseph Brant, or Thayendanegea, his family and tribe, during the outbreak of the rebellion, his visit to London to entreat support from George III, and his eventual retreat to the St Lawrence river – all basically factual stuff with lots of basically factual characters.
And, factually, it was horribly violent stuff too. Rhoda hadn’t the heart to finish it because it was so depressing and graphically bloodthirsty. And it was too long for most of us thrill-seekers, though some had sworn to complete it.
But look, wasn’t it quite an achievement? Had people seen the book’s website? Sara had. “Manituana is our novel on Iraq and the ‘war on terror’.” So say the authors. Their intention is to turn the received history of the War of Independence, with its heroic depiction of George Washington and his patriots, into one of cupidity and genocide. Had they not succeeded?
They had certainly immersed themselves in the history and culture of the period: the vexed notion of a ‘noble savage’, which was held to be the other side of a racism avant la lettre by Rousseau and Chateaubriand, is put into perspective by having the most feared of the Indian warriors demonstrating that he is familiar with Voltaire’s satire L’ingénu which takes on French Catholicism by means of an American Indian character arriving in Brittany; the urban underclass of London is given by the characters of a (historically attested) violent, anarchic gang, who are made to express the kind of Blakean regret for a golden age stolen by modern exploitation; the Indian retinue petitioning the King are pillars of sobriety among a lampooned menagerie of English aristocrats. It’s all pretty clever.
Wu Ming are avowedly Marxist (as opposed to avowedly anarchist – as Sara pointed out). Here the transparent element in that respect is the London dining club of bankers and journalist whose discussions, interspersed within the section of the book dealing with the visit to London, indicate a full-on free-trade support for the American ‘Whig’ rebels: this, the identification of capital driving the anti-colonial effort – so much for the ‘pursuit of happiness’ so famously made the emblem of the Declaration of Independence.
But they don’t stop there in their undermining the received version of this American history. George Washington has not been immune to criticism on the western side of the Atlantic – take Gore Vidal’s Burr which has him as an incompetent, but here he need only be quoted as the author of the order to exterminate the Iroquois tribes, heedlessly launching a scorched earth conflict on either side, his general, Sullivan, bearing a banner: ‘Civilization or death to all savages’.
In order to pass off their wicked subversion, Wu Ming litter their text with the staples of genre form: adventure (pirates on the high seas); action (Philip’s and Peter’s single-handed swash-buckling); sentiment (infant burial, Molly rescuing Philip); magical realism (Philip’s and Molly’s dreams or delusions). And they seem driven to put in fictionalised bits of stuff like the earliest ever vaccination and the earliest writing of the Mohawk language… it’s all about rupturing our preconceptions of ‘primitive’ culture. And then, suddenly, we have, in the flooding of tribes to the fort in flight from the genocidal American rebels, a depiction of refugees receiving aid which cannot help but strike us as familiar, given the present-day condition of the Middle-East and Africa.
Perhaps the most surprising feature of the book, to an English sensibility, is the amazingly accurate 18th century criminal cant or slang in the chapters concerning the ‘Mohock Club’. What could it possibly have been like in Italian? Thanks to the ‘copyleft’ policy of the authors, we can reveal from a free download of the original Italian text that these bits are partly invented words, as if lifted from Anthony Burgess’s Clockwork Orange and, for the most part, apparently Italian argot – the whole credit for rendering the translation so powerfully into cant appears to be owed to Shaun Whiteside, the translator. Well done, Shaun!
Wu Ming’s motivation to re-write this bit of history can be tracked down. 12 years prior to the action in this book, the Indian chief Pontiac had made a treaty with the British to limit the incursion of settlers into Indian lands. Wu Ming present it thus on their website:
It was Pontiac’s fault that King George III imposed a limit to the free advance of the settlers: the 1763 Proclamation Line. That border, along the Appalachian Mountains, struck the American subjects at least as much as the famous law concerning the importation of tea.
It was Pontiac’s fault that the Six Iroquois Nations broke their bond, fighting on opposite sides for the first time in six hundred years.
It is the word ‘fault’ which reveals the thing. The only basis for attributing ‘fault’ would be the American orthodox view that settlement was inevitable and Pontiac’s was a futile gesture.
That history is written by victors is a commonplace (attributed variously to Orwell or Churchill but probably older). Therefore write it again from a different perspective. Obviate the accident of brute force. Do Mohawk history.
Our next meeting is 6pm Monday 28 April and our treasure is Tobias Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker, his 1771 epistolary last novel.