Numero Zero by Umberto Eco
Conspiracy theorists will love it. Readers who enjoy pacy satire will love it. Bibliophiles with a penchant for fiction-fact blended narratives will love it. Umberto Eco’s seventh novel Numero Uno is a pin-sharp playful satire on Italy’s culture of corruption in high places.
Set in Milan in 1992, Eco offers us Colonna, a fifty-something failed writer who takes a job at a new newspaper financed by “Commendatore”, a tycoon, property dealer and would-be media mogul with a plot up his sleeve. Right from his first day Colonna is let in on the secret – this is a newspaper that will never be published. The staff will simply produce:
…twelve zero issues — 0/1, 0/2 and so on — dummy issues printed in a tiny number of exclusive copies that the Commendatore will inspect, before arranging for them to be seen by certain people he knows.
It is quite simply an instrument to help Commendatore out manoeuvre those who stand between him and access to the corridors of power. The editor in chief tells his new team their boss plans to get into the inner sanctum of finance and banking using the newspaper as a threat. Once they see his new newspaper is “ready to tell the truth about everything” they will be so afraid of what it might reveal, they’ll fling open all doors to him. Actually truth isn’t going to playing much of a role in this newspaper. Instead of merely reporting the news the Domani newspaper (the title translates as ‘Tomorrow’) will create it, speculating what could happen, how people could react and what they might say and concocting stories and features to fit the speculation. This editorial team is to operate on the principle that
It’s not the news that makes the newspaper, but the newspaper that makes the news And if you know how to put four different news items together then you can offer the reader a fifth.
As the journalists beaver away at fabricating their alternative versions of events, one of their number believes he has stumbled on a genuinely shocking story of a conspiracy involving the country’s foremost political leader. According to Braggadocio, Mussolini was not really executed in the spring of 1945. Instead, the Allies, or Hitlerite Blackshirts possibly in league with the CIA, duped the Italian population by substituting a body double for the man hanged in a Milanese square in 1945. The real Mussolini was spirited away to Argentina (or maybe the inner corridors of the Vatican) there to become the master mind behind a bomb attack on Bologna railway station in 1980. Braggadocio sets off in pursuit of proof for his conspiracy theory unaware that he is putting his own life, and those of his fellow reporters, in danger.
The sections dealing with Braggadocio are actually the least interesting elements of this short novel (its comes in at just under 10 pages). The trouble with conspiracy theorists is that they get so wrapped up in their theory, seeing significance in every small fact so they become a bore. Braggadocio unveils his particular theory in long sections of dialogue which describe and analyse Italy’s complex political history. Unless you are particularly interested in Italian politics of the 1940s, you might find you end up skimming many of these episodes,
Where Eco shines is in his portrayal of the newspaper office and its editorial policy. It is alternatively hilarious and chilling. The editorial team at Domani have little respect for their readers, viewing them as shallow, nitwits. Their readers don’t have books in their homes but can talk with ease about the latest hot title. Crossword puzzles perplex them if they go beyond clues like “The husband of Eve.” They understand so little of what’s going on that the journalists at Domani are told to ensure in their articles they have plenty of expressions like “have our cake and eat it, keep our finger on the pulse, be in the spotlight, make the best of a bad job.
Is Eco is making a serious point rather than simply setting out to entertain his readers? One of the key themes is the underlying sense of corruption and manipulation of power at the heart of Italian politics. It doesn’t take too much imagination to see some parallels between his fictional Commendatory and the real life former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi (though of course for legal reasons the latter’s name is never used). Eco’s Commendatore is described as the controller of a vast media empire of TV channels and magazines (just like Berlusconi) and a man about whom there is much speculation of shady deals (just as Berlusconi was for many years.).
In a country of individuals intent on building power through plots and manipulation of the truth, where can people find the truth? The answer for Eco is clearly not in the media because the Fifth Estate – traditionally the group most able to expose the abuse of power, can itself be corrupted. Instead of exposing wrong doing, they become forces for collusion. According to the editor in chief of Domani:
… newspapers are not there for spreading news but for covering it up. X happens, you have to report it, but it causes embarrassment for too many people, so in the same edition, you add some shock headlines — mother kills four children, savings at risk of going up in smoke, letter from Garibaldi insulting his lieutenant Nino Bixio discovered, etc — so news drowns in a great sea of information.
It’s hard to read that without experiencing the icy sensation of getting rather too close to reality to be comfortable.
Numero Zero by Umberto Eco, translated, from the Italian by Richard Dixon, was published in 2015 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This is Eco’s seventh novel. My copy was provided by the publishers via NetGalley in return for an honest review.