Posts Tagged ‘Umberto Eco’

Numero Zero

January 18, 2016

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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The Prague Cemetery

April 6, 2012

Umberto Eco’s fiction has always showed a fascination with stories. In his previous novel, the disappointing The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, an elderly bookseller immerses himself in memories of the stories of his youth; in what remains his most famous novel, The Name of the Rose the mystery is centred on a library. In The Prague Cemetery the stories may not literally poison, but nonetheless they are designed to infect minds. In it, Eco turns his historical gaze on the rise of modern anti-Semitism by shining a light on the dark art of propaganda.

The protagonist and narrator (at least, for the most part) is a double agent in more ways than one: not only does he play one side against the other, largely for financial inducement, but he begins the novel uncertain of the singularity of his identity:

“Yesterday, which I thought was Tuesday the 22nd of March, I woke up thinking I knew perfectly well who I was – …Simone Simonini, born in Turin, father from Turin, mother French.”

(Both name and nationality also have a double nature). He is removing his own disguise one morning when he spots the costume of another:

“I was wondering what third-rate actor I might have given accommodation to over the past few days when I realised that I too had been in disguise…Was I someone, then, who dressed alternately as a respectable gentleman and as a priest?”

Our central character is a secret agent and propagandist who is so uncertain of the truth he does not even know himself. He is also unaware of the damage he has caused over his long career, regarding himself as a man that rarely kills, yet unable to explain the corpses he has hidden beneath his house. The novel, then, is his attempt to regain his present by retelling his past.

Eco, of course, excels in the intricacies of history, and the novel abounds with historical events and personages. Simonini inherits his anti-Semitism from his grandfather, who tells him tales of the Templars, the Masons, and Jewish plans for world domination. His father is more considered; even when quoting the views of a priest against Jesuits he comments:

“But I have always been amused… that Gioberti took some of these ideas second-hand from The Wandering Jew, a novel by Eugene Sue, published the year before.”

As we shall see, fiction will reappear as fact frequently throughout the novel, and Simonini himself is soon an avid reader of Dumas, whose ideas he will later borrow and adapt. (Dumas himself later appears, apparently confusing reality with story, as an enthusiastic supporter of Garibaldi). Simonini’s father and grandfather die and he works for the family lawyer, who he feels has cheated him, to make ends meet. Part of that job entails forging documentation, and this brings him to the attention of the secret service. As a reward for entrapping a group of radicals he asks for the lawyer to be imprisoned. Later, when asked for information he does not have, he decides to invent it:

“Hence the idea that I might sell Bianco not only a few scraps of gossip I had picked up here and there, but an entire document taken from the Jesuits.”

Whether the document is true or false is never the issue –when Simonini initially pretends to be angered at the suggestion it may be a forgery, Bianco tells him, “Even if this document is all your own handiwork, it suits me and my superiors to present it to the government as genuine.” It is this same document, reappearing in different forms to suit different audiences throughout the novel, which leads to the famous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (It will also not surprise you to learn that Simonini is also involved in framing Dreyfus).

For a novel with such an unpleasant central character, The Prague Cemetery is generally very readable, with a fast-moving plot which can be (as Eco himself admits) a little confusing. As with his previous novel, it is illustrated throughout, with the many prints giving the impression of something fabricated, like the many forgeries Simonini creates, from existing sources. Eco has often celebrated the power of stories, but here he shows their danger: though the novel ends before the 19th century, it is the 20th century that is most in our minds.