Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco’s latest novel Numero Zero is a mystery novel about media politics, conspiracies, and murder.
When you think of an Umberto Eco, you think of conspiracy theorists engaged in extended conversations with some philosophy and meta-fiction thrown in. Concoct the strangest plot, blur the line between obsessive fantasies and realities, and finish it off with a pinch of random trivia and you have yourself an Eco classic.
Set in Milan in 1992, Numero Zero tells the story of Colonna, a small-time journalist and a ghostwriter of detective stories. Ghostwriting, in his opinion, is a liberating way of writing which by means of elimination of the pressure to be original gives the ghostwriter the freedom to write as he pleases: “I enjoyed working in the shadows, hidden behind a double veil”.
When we open the book we find Colonna paranoid that somebody had searched his apartment while he was asleep. He is afraid for his life because one of his colleagues was mysteriously murdered the previous day. This co-worker believed in a crazy conspiracy theory involving Mussolini, the CIA and the Vatican. In the fashion of popular thrillers, Eco takes us back to the trigger event which led the protagonist to that unfortunate, paranoid morning.
The editor of a newspaper that is still in the testing phase, Simei, offers him a handsome sum to ghostwrite his memoir about the time leading to the set-up of a new newspaper called Domani while working as an editor for appearances’ sake. Ghostwriting, however, is only the first layer of conspiracy; soon we discover that Simei wickedly intends to backdate the dummy issues of Domani to make it look like the reporters could predict the future course of ongoing cases.
Being unsuccessful in life, Colonna confesses himself to be a designated loser with the freedom to pursue various vocations: “Losers, like autodidacts, always know more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing and not to waste your time on anything else; the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers”.
His fellow journalists are a bunch of unsuccessful writers. They have daily editorial meetings in which they brainstorm story ideas and what might interest their readers; the blatant disregard for the essential journalistic ideals is perversely hilarious. Ideas such as how to create a story out of a non-story, how to disprove some news by discrediting the teller instead of showing the facts, etc., are painstakingly discussed.
Eco takes his time unravelling the plot, focusing instead on the farcical newspaper and its equally mediocre writers. Numero Zero is a media satire about the death of good journalism. It also highlights the constructive nature of reality and what is often presented as reality or facts.
Maia, one of Colonna’s colleagues, has experience of writing for celebrity gossip magazines but dreams of doing real journalism. She seems to be autistic as she “talks like an oracle” and “can’t see the other person’s point of view”. Colonna grows fond of the young girl because her vulnerability makes him feel like her protector. Braggadocio, an extremely paranoid colleague of Colonna’s, claims to have uncovered the biggest political conspiracy in modern Italy and after a few days is mysteriously murdered. The chief editor tells Colonna that the newspaper project has been cancelled and he better run for his life because they can never be certain what the murderers might do to him if they knew Braggadocio had confided in him.
This sharp, entertaining novel offers a satirical rollercoaster ride through the Italy of that time. Certain digressions, such as Braggadocio’s crazy theory of the impossibility of choosing the right car which goes on for pages, might put off some readers, but I found them quite entertaining.
At under 200 pages, Numero Zero is a fast and easy read with an interesting plot, witty dialogues and several literary and historical references. If you have been waiting to jump on the Eco bandwagon, Numero Zero would be a good starting point as it has all the alluring features of an Eco novel.
The reviewer is an Ankara-based freelance writer and critic.
By Umberto Eco
Translated by Richard Dixon
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, US