Manituana by Wu Ming, translated by Shaun Whiteside
It is difficult for a novel about American Indians during the Revolutionary War period to be anything but elegiac. Certainly, such a book can be many other things, but this time period was a particularly difficult one for American Indians. The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy -- the dominant Indian confederation in the colonies -- were torn between the rebel colonists and their erstwhile British allies. The war shattered the confederacy, splitting an alliance that had maintained peace for hundreds of years. But the Revolutionary War was also tragic for the Iroquois because it was a war for which they had not asked; it demanded they take sides; and it permanently destroyed a relatively idyllic mixed community of natives and white settlers who lived in the Mohawk Valley in New York, east of Lake Ontario.
The novel Manituana proudly wears this mantle of elegy, while also presenting a thrilling adventure-drama of conflicted peoples fighting for their homeland. It is a gorgeously wrought novel, whose story takes between 1775 and 1783 and is told in short, finely diced chapters that demand adjectives like ‘cinematic’ and ‘panoramic.’ While the narrative occasionally slips into melodrama and has a tendency to cast its American Indian protagonists as mystical, spiritualist noble savages, even while attempting to refute that worn archetype, this is a very fine book that challenges the popular romantic notions of America's birth. It delves deeply into a complicated period of history, returning to the surface with a fascinating trove of cultural details and historical anecdotes.
Manituana portrays prominent figures of the time with an urgent vitality, such as Joseph and Mary Brant, likely the two most famous Indians of their day and the sibling leaders of the Iroquois Confederacy. There are also cameos by numerous other figures, minor and major, including famed English actor David Garrick, King George III, General Ethan Allen, Samuel Kirkland, General William Howe, and even the Mohocks, a violent gang of Mohawk admirers who terrorized London and were sensationalized in the press. None of these people are extraneous; each adds to the novel's sense that history moves through a broad, interconnected matrix, abetted by actors who sometimes are unaware of their roles.
Expertly researched, cognizant of its erudition without being preening or didactic, Manituana centers around Joseph Brant, who rises from a translator in the British Indian Department to become a chief and war-leader in the confederacy. Also known as Thayendanega, Brant is aided by his sister, Molly, dream-seer and widow of Sir William Johnson, a legendary former Superintendent of Indian Affairs who inspired a period of close cooperation (and occasional intermarriage) between Indians and European settlers on his massive holdings in New York. Also featured is Philip Lacroix Ronaterihonte, a wraith-like man, born Indian, raised French, later returned to his roots, whose tragic family history and unmatched abilities as a warrior earn him the sobriquet Le Grande Diable.
To summarize the numerous other appealing characters in this book, both historical and invented, would take too long, but the plenitude of them -- and each one's impressively lucid representation -- is evidence of the startling talent of these writers. Yes, writers: Manituana is the work of Wu Ming, an avant-garde band of four (formerly five) Italian writers who have collaborated on many works. This is their third novel translated into English; their regular translator Shaun Whiteside ably grasps the novel's protean lexicon and syntax, which often alters as the narrative shifts its focus among characters and regions.
Wu Ming's works are paragons of the self-described New Italian Epic, a slice of literature, beginning in the early 1990s, that combines innovative narrative forms, an eschewing of ironic detachment, a critical engagement with history, and a pop attitude that yields complex, entertaining works of fiction. Their aesthetic is characterized by sardonic wit and lyricism, best expressed in Manituana by multisensory nature descriptions that border on animistic. But Wu Ming are multifarious in their talents. Take this passage in which Philip walks through an unfamiliar London:
Suddenly he was aware of a presence below him. A monstrous creature touched his knee, emitting incomprehensible sounds. It was a man, or what was left of one. Its trunk rested on a plank of wood, moved on little wheels propelled by its hands. A compact coating of scabs and colorless rags covered its body, and you could hardly make out eyes, mouth, a few fingers. Philip felt an instinctive urge to chase away the horror, but remained motionless, enthralled by the immensity of such ugliness. "Our earthly trial." The creature stank and spoke, a singsong chant, obscure except for two words: "Sir" and "Excellency." At the end of its twisted fingers it held a little tin plate. The creature was asking for charity.
Manituana is the first chapter in a promised "Atlantic tryptich" taking place during the Revolutionary War period. Other volumes are expected to play out on both sides of the Atlantic, much as Manituana's action travels from New York, to Canada, to London, and back again. Undergirding this novel is a probing consideration of both the origins and righteousness of the Revolutionary War -- even a shadowy group of free-trade advocating London merchants get a voice. There is also a provocative questioning of what constitutes a massacre, whether such a horrific act could ever be justified in the defense of one's people or homeland. After all, Joseph Brant was often called "Monster Brant," but Wu Ming's book delicately explores the difficult choices Brant faced, particularly when rebel militias and George Washington's army were rampaging towards the Longhouse, the broad region the Iroquois Confederacy had called home for centuries.
To begin one chapter, the authors use an order from General Washington to General John Sullivan to "lay waste all the settlements" in "Indian Country" and to "not by any means listen to any overture of peace before the total ruinment of their settlements." The order is, of course, genuine, the command that launched the Sullivan Expedition, which destroyed dozens of Iroquois villages and sent bands of starving refugees to Fort Niagara. It was the end of the confederacy.
Wu Ming have admitted that this novel, written between 2003 and 2007, is inspired in part by the actions of the Bush administration during the same period. (Those aforementioned free traders could be seen as analogues for 21st-century multinational capitalists who would, given the chance, use warfare to open protectionist markets.) But irrespective of its contemporary echoes -- found in comments like "declaring an opinion on everything, especially things one doesn't know about, is one of the sicknesses of the age" and "there was no room for the past in America" -- Manituana stands on its own in its wrestling with a difficult period that too often is reduced to myopic patriotic narratives or slogans regarding taxation.
Describing a spectacular fireworks show on the Earl of Warwick's estate, performed by a group of Italian showmen, the narrator jests that "the Italians built their own glory on the embellishment of ideas born elsewhere, adding a flamboyant, clownish touch." It is a self-referential comment, even a self-effacing one, but it belies the splendor of this novel. Perhaps the four men behind Wu Ming have built their glory on others' ideas, occasionally with a novel flamboyance, but they have made these ideas their own by imbuing them with a sublimity that powerfully elegizes a devastated civilization, while also challenging us to reconsider the historic narrative we often hold as self-evident.
Manituana by Wu Ming, translated by Shaun Whiteside