Book review: Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco. Picture: Getty Images
Umberto Eco. Picture: Getty Images
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IN a thinly veiled satire on Italy’s media revolution Umberto Eco’s playfulness is back with a vengeance

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco | Harvill Secker, £16.99

UMBERTO Eco has always perplexed me. His debut novel, The Name Of The Rose, brought avant-garde ideas about the novel into the mainstream. It was playful and punning, winked at other literary works, interrogated the idea of the book itself, and delivered a first rate mystery. I was even more impressed by his next book, Foucault’s Pendulum, in which a group of shabby minor litterateurs either invent or discover a conspiracy that explains all of world history. Then things went a little awry with works that seemed less like novels informed by theory than theories embodied in novels. Even his last work, The Prague Cemetery, seemed strident where his first books were ludic. Eco managed to be both too serious and not serious enough.

There are only three important things to know you need to know about Eco’s new novel, Numero Zero. The first is that it is set in Milan, the second that it is set in 1992. The third is that it is a triumph. While his oeuvre has tended to the expansive, this is as sharp as a stiletto and used as deliberately. His obsession with the contradictory nature of writing and fascination with apophenia (the condition whereby the mind connects things dissimilar) are here purposeful and precise.

The novel opens with Colonna, a self-confessed failure, worrying that someone has broken into his flat as he slept and turned off the water mains. The reason for his paranoia is the novel’s main concern. Colonna, a rootless translator, editor, book reviewer and general literary odd-job man, has recently been taken on to work on a new newspaper to be called Domani – Tomorrow. But this is no ordinary piece of hack-work. His boss, Simei, explains that he has been contracted by a man they nickname “The Commendatore” to produce 12 dummy editions of a new kind of journalism: a newspaper that doesn’t report what happened yesterday but creates what people think tomorrow.

The Commendatore – a property mogul, publisher and TV boss – wants to show what he could potentially unleash to the Italian political and financial elite. Domani will be banal and insidious; it will record the facts in such a way as to insinuate other stories entirely; it will set the agenda by innuendo. It will dumb up and slyly do down. The agenda is the formation of a new political party that will thrive on the distrust of politicians and pretend to represent the everyday person while simultaneously shaping the everyday person as less than she or he could be. It is an exercise in supreme cynicism.

Among the half-dozen other employees on Domani two stand out. Colonna falls in with Braggadocio, an obsessive who claims to have the scoop of the century. What if Mussolini had been replaced by a body-double, and was still part of a fascist conspiracy that took in the deaths of John Paul I and Roberto Calvi, the assassination of Aldo Moro, the rise of the Red Brigade and the resurgence of right-wing thuggery? But Braggadocio is found murdered; hence Colonna’s paranoia.

The other is Maia, a woman Braggadocio thinks is on the autistic spectrum. Maia has a gift for inversion. When Simei explains the necessity of cliché in Domani, she riffs on how wonderful it would be to provoke with the opposite: “Hard drugs are the first step to smoking joints, don’t make yourself at home, let’s stand on ceremony, those who pursue pleasure are always happy, I may be senile but I’m not old, Greek is all math to me”. She wonders what a newspaper that carried genuine rather than coded lonely hearts messages would be like. Two impossible newspapers are being fictioned in Domani’s offices: one that tells the truth and is all lies and one that is so true it is a satire.

As a satire on the media world, Numero Zero is acute and accurate, flipping from harmless fun to savage indictment. Who entered politics a year after the novel is set, controlled a large number of media outlets, and was nicknamed Il Cavaliere? Step forward Silvio Berlusconi. The conspiracy is not over: it has metastasised. It is a little known fact that one of Berlusconi’s early appointments was Carlo Freccero, one of the last of the inner circle of Guy Debord’s revolutionary Situationist International that attempted to oppose “the society of the spectacle” while admitting that capitalism could “recuperate” the radical to its own ends.

At the end of the novel Colonna, instead of trying to flee, consoles himself that “all we have to do is wait: once this country of ours has finally joined the Third World, the living will be easy”.