Numero Zero

numero zero

I sometimes wonder whether Umberto Eco’s legacy as a writer will largely ignore his fiction. Not, of course, The Name of the Rose, the novel which made Eco’s name as a result of both its popularity and skilful construction. Had it not been a success, though, would he have gone on to write more fiction, or retreated back into the academic world? Don’t misunderstand me: I enjoy Eco’s novels – they are frequently entertaining and learned – but none have quite matched his first, and, until The Prague Cemetery, seemed to be on a downward trajectory reaching its nadir in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Eco continues the fascination with conspiracies displayed (not for the first time) in The Prague Cemetery in his latest novel, Numero Zero. Set in 1992, it satirises Italian corruption while at the same time offering a series of Fascist conspiracies which only begin with Mussolini’s death, continuing through Italian post-war history to the novel’s present. The satire originates with an offer of employment to the novel’s narrator, Colonna:

“A book. The memoirs of a journalist, the story of a year’s work setting up a newspaper that will never be published.”

The newspaper (Domani = tomorrow) is being created entirely for the benefit of the publisher, Commendatore Vimercate: by suggesting that he is prepared to sanction a newspaper which will “tell the truth about everything” he hopes to put enough pressure on the rich and powerful to be allowed to join the club:

“Once the Commendatore has shown he can create problems for the so-called inner sanctum of finance and politics, it’s likely they’ll ask him to put a stop to such an idea. He’ll close down Domani and will then be given an entry permit to the inner sanctum.”

It is through working with the newspaper’s staff (who are unaware of the log-term plan) that Colonna meets Braggadocio, a signed-up, card-carrying conspiracy theorist:

“…my father taught me never to take news as gospel truth. The newspapers lie, historians lie, now the television lies….And so I stuck to being a journalist and hunting out conspiracies.”

Braggadocio attempts to convince Colonna that Mussolini survived the end of the Second World War; it was, in fact, his double who was killed. As Braggadocio has already conducted most of his research, this presented largely in dialogue, which Eco splits over more than one scene in an effort to create some tension. More plausibly, Braggadocio goes on to outline the use of ex-Fascists by the Americans to prevent European countries from straying towards socialism (this will be of interest to anyone who has read Peter Carey’s Amnesia which recounts an American plot to remove an Australian government they felt were too left wing).

The novel raises the possibility that Colonna’s life may be in danger as a result of what Braggadocio has told him – it begins with Colonna fearing that this is then case in June before rewinding to April to tell the rest of the story in flashback. How seriously Eco intends us to take this is unclear: it is the fact that his water has been turned off which causes Colonna to panic, and, while panicking, he is able to summarise his life story up to that point for our benefit.
How seriously we are to take the novel as a whole is also unclear. Obviously the newspaper satire is poking fun at Italian corruption, but is Eco also satirising conspiracy theorists? Or is he suggesting that the more ridiculous theory (Mussolini’s survival) merely symbolises the continued influence of Fascism on Italy? Though far from a perfect novel, Carey is clearly upset (okay, outraged) at the American coup in Amnesia; Numero Zero feels more like an intellectual game. (And this is without considering the least plausible aspect of the novel, the love affair which Eco inserts into the narrative).

Numero Zero is short and entertaining, but the entertainment lies more is the conspiracies themselves than in the way they are presented in the novel. In turn they clash with the satirical intent, leaving this reader a little uncertain what to make of it all, a not atypical reaction to conspiracy theories themselves.

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18 Responses to “Numero Zero”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    I read this it had echoes of earlier books foucaults pendulum in particular for meit was a bit lite thou almost as thou he has brought into himself being the thinking mans dan brown. Maybe I’m not happy if his books aren’t 600 pages long lol

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    I read The Name of the Rose back in the day, but it *was* overlong. I’m not entirely sure Eco quite knows where he’s going with his fiction but I’d like to read more if I have the time.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I have this but haven’t yet read it. I am fairly familiar with Italian politics of the period though, which was rich both in real conspiracies and conspiracy theories (and where one of those groups ended and the other began was never clear and never will be).

    It’s the first Eco I’ve looked at in a long time. Generally I just don’t think he’s a very good novel writer, despite a couple of obviously highly notable early successes. He’s a Donna Tartt, everyone wants him to be amazing because everyone loved his early work (“I didn’t”, no doubt pipes up at least someone reading this), but that lighting just won’t go back in the bottle.

    Short and entertaining though is a big step forward for Eco from where he’s been. Hopefully he’ll keep away from the blockbusters for a while and try these more Espresso-like novels.

    He is by the way a tremendous short essayist. His How to Travel with a Salmon is huge fun.

    • 1streading Says:

      This is very much what I suspected, despite having not read his essays – thanks for confirming.
      If you’re interested in fiction dealing with Italy around that time (well, late seventies) you might want to try Allan Massie’s The Death of Men.

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        I rather like Allan Massie. Thanks, I’ll check that out.

        The Italians used to call (maybe still do) the 1970s the anni di piombo, the years of lead, due to the levels of political violence at the time. Have you read Hari Kunzru’s My Revolutions? There’s a review at mine – it looks at the far less successful (not that any of these movements succeeded much) UK Angry Brigade, our equivalent to the Red Brigade.

      • 1streading Says:

        Thanks – haven’t read Kunzru at all, but I like the sound of that.

  4. JacquiWine Says:

    Intriguing stuff, Grant. I must admit that I’d never considered reading Eco until I read your review, but your description of the novel with its focus on corruption and conspiracy theories has piqued my interest. I’ve still got a couple of unread Sciascia’s on my shelves so it’s not something I’ll be rushing out to buy…that said, I’ll keep it in mind. 🙂

  5. BookerTalk Says:

    I enjoyed the satire of journalistic practices but found the conspiracy stuff a bit tedious. But then most conspiracy theorists are so full of their theory they lost sight of how stupid they can sound.

    • 1streading Says:

      There was an amusing satire in there struggling to get out! I also wasn’t sure how seriously we were meant to take the various conspiracies, which didn’t help.

    • Max Cairnduff Says:

      As I mentioned on yours Booker, conspiracy theory in Italy is a little different to many other countries as postwar Italian history until 1992 has been shown to have involved quite a large number of fairly serious political conspiracies. The whole Aldo Moro thing, the P2 lodge, the Bologna train bombing (it’s really not conspiracy theory to see that as a State-sponsored bombing of the country’s own citizens, that’s mainstream Italian political thought, and so on). Italy’s not like the UK or US in this sense.

      There’s a word in Italian, dietrologia (behindology), which captures that sense of conspiracies everywhere. The problem is there were (are for all I know) so many real conspiracies with many of them so unlikely that the wilder imaginings of the nutjobs weren’t much different to the reality, and often it was very difficult to tell which was which.

      1992 is key as it’s the year in which the entire Italian establishment came crashing down after an investigation into a cleaning firm’s bribe for a contract revealed a web of institutionalised corruption on a massive and national scale (a web that was already widely known about, but which included so many of the judiciary and almost the entire political class so was previously unassailable). It’s a fascinating period, in which old policies of (for example) assigning control of tv stations to political parties according to their proportion of the vote (which never changed much) was a recognised phenomenon.

      The initial cause was the fall of the Berlin wall, which led to a loss of the fear of Communism and a withdrawal of US support for the Christian Democrats who’d been in power for decades. There were also new magistrates coming up like Antonio di Pietro who weren’t part of the old regime and wanted to make names for themselves, so took advantage of a moment of historical instability to do so with the mani pulite (clean hands) campaign. Hence the 1992 Tangentopoli (Bribesville) scandal which ended Italy’s postwar political consensus and put many of its key politicians in jail.

      There’s no real equivalent in the UK. It would be like John Major and Neil Kinnock and David Owen all being found to be involved in collective organised corruption and bribery on a colossal scale with most of them going to jail. It’s pretty much unthinkable.

      Out of that chaos arises Berlusconi, offering simple solutions to a frankly rather confused populace. It didn’t hurt that Italian laws on consolidation of media ownership are very different to most countries, with the result that once he took government he directly owned the majority of privately held tv stations and of course controlled as leader of the government the state owned ones. It was that in part which led to the famous Economist front page condemnation of him – one of the few times the Economist has called for a democratically elected Western political leader to stand down as unfit to govern (possibly the only time).

      Sorry, I was studying out there in 1992. I’m fairly familiar with the politics, but for those who aren’t it can sound like conspiracy theory, but everything above is just plain old fashioned history (save the cause of Moro’s death, while a fair few in Italy still blame that on State action or even direct US intervention the majority view as far as I know is still that the Red Brigade killed him without outside prompting. Still, if you said you thought the State was involved while I suspect most would disagree it wouldn’t mark you out as a conspiracy nut the way say blaming the CIA for Kennedy’s death would).

      • BookerTalk Says:

        Well now I am fully briefed and will be able to stun my friends with this knowledge. Also learned a new word today – behindology.

      • Max Cairnduff Says:

        Yes, it’s a silly neologism in Italian too.

      • 1streading Says:

        Oh, I don’t know – I now plan to use it whenever anyone asks me what I have a degree in and leave the rest to their imagination!
        Thanks for all the background information. I did assume that (apart from Mussolini’s survival) the rest was probably true. I kind of wish you’d written an introduction to the novel though!

  6. WordsAndPeace Says:

    I actually quite enjoyed it (on audio). I thought that was precisely the point that all along you end up wondering how much is fiction, reality, or conspiracy

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