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54

by Wu Ming

54 by Wu Ming X
54 by Wu Ming
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  • Published:
    Jul 2006, 560 pages

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Part political commentary, part complex escapism - available in hardcover or as a free download!

From the book jacket: In Hollywood, Cary Grant has grown weary of cinema's constant glamour, but Her Majesty's Secret Service will break his malaise with a bizarre diplomatic mission. In Naples, Lucky Luciano fixes horse races and launches the global heroin trade. And in Bologna, a bartender searches for true love and his missing communist father.  Set during the height of the Cold War - with the world divided into East and West - 54 features Italian partisans, KGB agents, Parisian lowlifes, and cameos by David Niven, Marshal Tito, and Grace Kelly. Wu Ming brings us a cinematic romp that is by turns edgy social satire and modern comic send up.

Comment: When I read a pre-publication review for 54 comparing it to the Don Camillo* short stories I had to have it (the full quote was "Don Camillo meets The Name of the Rose meets Dr. No: a rewarding beach book for grownups"). Sadly, to my mind, 54 did not live up to its billing on that count - but then again, very few books could, as the Don Camillo stories are one of my all time favorites!  Having said that, it is a fun read, although I wished that I had had a little more historical background to fill in the details as I read (background I have supplied for you in the sidebar!) because the entire novel sprawls with fact and fiction and although in some cases it is easy to tell the two apart (sentient TV sets being a bit of a give-away) in other instances it is more difficult to know where one begins and the other ends, and keeping track of the many characters was a challenge - a list of key characters and how they related to each other would have been a help.

About the authors:  Wu Ming is not a single person but a collective of five "guerrillla novelists" from Italy (in Chinese, wu ming can either mean "anonymous" or "five names", depending on how the first syllable is pronounced - and is a common byline among Chinese citizens demanding freedom of speech).  They are not anonymous as such but prefer to write under their individual nom de plumes and in group refer to themselves as Wu Ming.  54 (a reference to the year 1954) is their first major work.  The whole Wu Ming concept is far too complex to go into here, if you want to know more I suggest you visit their website bio page!

Free book!  Since 1996 the Wu Ming Foundation have operated what they refer to as a "copyleft" policy and allow visitors to their website to download the entire text of their books for free.  So, while they do encourage you to pay for their books so they can keep writing them, you can also visit their website and download 54, or one of their other works, for free (in Italian, English, Dutch, Spanish or Portuguese).

*About the Don Camillo books: Starting in 1946, Giovannino Guareschi wrote more than 300 stories about the hot-headed parish priest Don Camillo, and his battles with the communist major Peppone, all set in the Po Valley of Northern Italy - if you're not familiar with these stories I do suggest you look them up, all appear to be out of print now but you can find plentiful used copies at Addall.com and Amazon, and probably in your local library).

This review first ran in the August 17, 2006 issue of BookBrowse Recommends.

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