Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

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Translated by Richard Dixon

Reviewed by Paul Fishman

For a short novel, Numero Zero is amazingly leisurely and discursive. It’s like an Arabian Nights for conspiracy theorists, historians of the late 20th century and political sceptics, with stories within stories, asides, facts, speculation, satire and nods to the past and future. If that sounds like a bit of a mess and possibly hard going, in fact it’s jolly and generally entertaining, if slightly uneven.

The set-up is this: it’s 1992 and the narrator–protagonist, Colonna, a middle-aged hack writer/editor who has given up on his literary ambitions, is hired by a more-or-less mysterious employer to help with the establishment of a peculiar new newspaper, a muckraking enterprise with a difference. The first dummy issue will be made up of old stories to show how it would work with fresh news, or at least that’s what the journalists are told. In truth, it’s a political manoeuvre to blackmail the profoundly corrupt Italian establishment into accepting the proprietor into their circle. The newspaper will be quietly knocked on the head and the compromising stories dropped if he gets what he wants. Signor Berlusconi, media tycoon and (at that time) aspiring establishment figure, is never mentioned by name, but there are signals pointing in his direction, while the UK and US media also attract plenty of attention.

One of the pleasures of the book is the way it casually but persuasively takes apart modern journalism, its techniques, ulterior motives, deliberate stupidity, laziness and corruption. This is done with Ecovian (if I can say that) cheerfulness, and while I think there is genuine anger beneath, there is also amused affection.

Colonna is pragmatic, detached, melancholy, dry, not unamused, occasionally disgusted, and his story and development have their own interest. Sometimes the characterisation and plotting seem a little perfunctory, lost among all the digressions, but there is some credibility and even warmth there, and four of the characters made a real impression on me: Colonna himself; Colonna’s earnest and mildly eccentric love interest, Maia; Simei, the genial and crooked manager of the newspaper project; and Braggadocio, the ludicrous conspiracy-obsessed journalist who introduces the major part of the plot.

Braggadocio, morally and politically ambiguous, is developing a theory that accounts for most of Italy’s post-war political history. Mussolini wasn’t really killed in 1945, but lived on, with a vast right-wing conspiracy built around him. The one thing preventing him from completing his investigation is a suitable car; he needs to travel around for his research. And the car manufacturers are deliberately concealing vital information about their vehicles—in a brilliant passage of extended comic absurdity, Braggadocio details all their shortcomings in some statistical detail. For four pages. It’s an unlikely pleasure, and also brings him to life while making him seem like a very suspect source of information. But then something happens that suggests he may have uncovered something after all…

Braggadocio’s approach to his theory/story summarises this postmodern Arabian Nights well, accidentally or otherwise:

‘The point is, everything we heard was false or distorted … we’ve been living a lie. I’ve always said: never believe what they tell you …’

‘And your story ends there…’

‘Eh, no, this is the beginning of another one, and perhaps I only became interested through what happened next…’

Stories within stories, following whatever seems interesting at the time, and with the truth always uncertain.

I say ‘postmodern’ reluctantly—it’s lazy and there are few more dismal descriptions than ‘playfully postmodern’—but it’s hard to avoid. This isn’t a classical novel. Where I think Eco scores over many postmodernist writers is that he is simple in the right places, and complex in the right places, whereas so many others are the reverse. He may fool around with the novel’s form and go off on wild digressions, but there is a warmth to his writing that goes beyond intellectual trickery, while his down-to-earth sanity and humane view of the world are appealing. As in Foucault’s Pendulum, Eco gently espouses something like the advice from Voltaire’s Candide, that we should ignore the troubled outside world and cultivate our own gardens:

‘Let’s get down to work and stop all this philosophising,’ said Martin. ‘It’s the only way to make life bearable.’ (Translation by Roger Pearson, 2006, Oxford University Press.)

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Paul is a freelance hack and flim-flam merchant; his website/blog is at Fishmandeville. He’s also an editor at Alderman Lushington, an online drinks magazine:

Umberto Eco, Numero Zero, translated Richard Dixon. (Harvill Secker, 2015). 9781910701089, 208 pp., hardback.

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