April 21, 2014 / GO Brooklyn / DUMBO / Books / February Houses

‘Altai’ by Wu Ming

A very novel novel: Dumbo-published thriller penned by anonymous author collective

for The Brooklyn Paper
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This historical thriller offers an intriguing look at some fresh fictional possibilities.

“Altai,” published by Dumbo’s Verso Books, is written not by a single author but by an anonymous collective using a method they compare to jazz improvisation.

As “Altai” opens, a 16-century spy catcher named Emanuele de Zante finds himself on the wrong side of his trade, framed by his Venetian masters for a crime he didn’t commit and pursued across continents. His knowledge of Venice’s inner workings make him valuable to his former patron’s enemies, and he eventually ends up in an odd corner of the Ottoman Empire, aiding a man with a Moses complex who wants to seize Cypress and make it a new Jewish homeland.

The novel’s short, punchy chapters conclude with cliffhangers. Its episodic shape and helter-skelter, scavenger-hunt nature are similar to Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code.” Outlandish characters with unnecessary backstories pop up, proffering a bridge to whatever or wherever’s next, and there ‘s no time to breathe or question coincidence.

It is a form at least as old as Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps” or G.K. Chesterton’s “The Man Who Was Thursday” — templates of thrillerdom from which “Altai” differs mostly in its absence of racism and its liberatory political underpinnings. It is in part a book about the roles those denied empire (in this case, the Jews) might play in a world defined by empires. Along the way, De Zante learns to accept and then embrace his own previously renounced Jewishness, a straight-forward interior journey in contrast to his dizzying geographical movements.

“Altai” also differs from most thrillers in that our protagonist is a watcher, a listener, and a loyal servant, not someone who tends to take action on his own behalf. Whether as prisoner, refugee or emissary, de Zante is very often shuttled around at the whims of more powerful men. He is frequently a witness, rarely a participant shaping the outcome of events, and while the historical scenery is rich and interesting, it serves predominantly as a backdrop for conversation rather than swordplay or lovemaking.

There are very good passages, notably de Zante’s introduction to a city under siege, but most of the writing could be generously described as workmanlike. The collective behind “Altai” clearly appreciates the art of the airport potboiler, but whether they indulge in its tropes winkingly or because they find it an effective literary mode, readers with snootier sensibilities may not be amused by frequent patches of macho bramble — terse declaratory sentences and showers of fragmentary noun phrase meant to drive home the import of a situation or event.

As de Zante eavesdrops on the 100th turbaned conspirator sharing a strategic secret with the 101st, readers had better enjoy the texture and tenor of the book rather than trying to keep straight every name, place, and political allegiance. Soon enough, de Zante will be whisked away to another exotic locale, enmeshed in a fresh conspiracy.

“February Houses,” named after the 20th-century Brooklyn arts commune, spotlights recent or noteworthy literature from Brooklyn publishers. To send books for review, contact

Updated 10:17 pm, July 9, 2018
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