Nearly five hundred years before the Russian serfs were emancipated, WatTyler demanded that “no man should be a serf, nor do homage or any mannerof service to any lord” and that no one should serve any man but at hisown will. Later on, but still before the Reformation, the Czech Taboritessought to abolish power and all institutions, including Church and State.Revolutionary thinking in Europe was not unique to the Enlightenment andthe centuries since.
A spy thriller and a bawdy, action-packed picaresque, Q is the story ofwhat we would now call an activist, if not an anarchist, told against thebackground of Reformation Europe. Anyone who has been involved in socialor political protest will warm to the urgency of the descriptions of theactivists' preparations and attempts to mobilise the public. There is talkof printing presses and distribution of flyers and also cool, pragmaticdebate about tactics, while people grumble that “the cops never change.”Indeed, anyone who has stood on a rainy street, flyer in hand, trying tointerest the public in their cause will probably be envious of thesuccesses of the narrator and his companions.
Similarly, Ursula's “spectacles” in Strasbourg (part 2, chapter 14) willbe familiar with readers of Indymedia (anti-war protests in Ireland havefeatured people dressed in the orange overalls of Camp X-Ray prisonersbeing menaced by others dressed as soldiers). Also in Strasbourg theactivists build a brick wall in front of the pulpit in the church: whatmight now be called a “direct action.” In part 2, chapter 15 the narratorcomplains that the powers that be (Capito and Bucer) are drawingdistinctions between “peaceful” and “seditious” Baptists. The debate aboutthe establishment's division of protestors into “good” and “bad” is verymuch alive today. For a historical novel, Q is ferociously modern, butonly if you are under the illusion that radicalism is a recent phenomenon.
The narrator's guiding light is Thomas Müntzer, a leader in the Peasants'War who preached “a sort of anarchical individualism” (Grant). A perhapsmore conservative historian, G. R. Elton, describes him as a “demonicgenius” and “in his preaching of violence a dangerous lunatic.” But theMüntzer of Q is an unmistakeably sympathetic character with his faith inordinary people's ability to think for themselves and draw their ownconclusions from the Bible without the mediation of the Church. “We werefree and equal in the name of God,” the narrator exults while travellingGermany spreading the news. For all the talk of Luther and the Pope, Q ismore about personal freedom than religious freedom. The narrator growsdisillusioned with Luther, who abandoned the peasants to theirdisproportionately bloody fate in the Peasants' War, and as he grows older(the novel spans 30 years) begins to use Lutherans (“useful, albeitundesirable, allies”) in power plays against the establishment. It is afeature of this activist that he is prepared to use all kinds of tacticsto achieve his goals and is not hampered by scruples about participatingin the power system he is seeking to bring down.
When peasant leader Wat Tyler met King Richard in 1381 he took him by thehand, called him his brother and “rinsed his mouth in a very rude anddisgusting fashion before the king.” The rudeness is significant,symbolising a levelling of relations, and is a feature of Q as well.After the more sedate environs of, say, John Banville's Kepler, thelanguage of this novel is bracing, to say the least and by no means aprojection of our vulgar present into the past: Elton writes that the realMüntzer's attacks on Luther were foulmouthed but that Luther in turn waswell able for it: “his own writing was often earthy and coarse”. Q makessome attempts at archaic vocabulary (“the smell of the humours”) but theyremain half-hearted by comparison with the blasts of obscenities.Frederick the Elector's good old fashioned “Silence!” is outgunned by hisown “And quite right too: you've fucked up mightily”.
There is a healthy strain of carnival in the book (Rabelais, author ofPantagruel and Gargantua, was solidly of the age). The activists seekto turn the social order upside down, drawing their members not just fromhumble workers, but from the ranks of pimps and bandits too, and sendingtheir biggest, dumbest member to the Diet with the bishop of Münster.Again, this is not necessarily a projection of modern egalitarianism intothe distant past. Jan Bockelson of the Münster Anabaptists really was atailor and Jan Matthys was a baker. And as for vulgarity: a fewillustrations from the 1500s at the end of the book should put paid toideas of more decorous times.