In his 2004 collection of essays, “On Literature,” Umberto Eco makes reference to a story he worked on after the publication of his 1995 novel, “The Island of the Day Before.” Called “Numero Zero,” it was to be a novel “about a group of characters who made forgeries” as the staff of an experimental daily newspaper. But Eco struggled to bring the idea to life and ultimately abandoned it. “I was afraid,” he wrote, “I would find myself dealing with the same set of characters as in ‘Foucault’s Pendulum.’ ”
What led Eco to revisit “Numero Zero” and publish it two decades later is not entirely clear. Time has certainly not lessened the resemblance to “Foucault’s Pendulum,” his epic exploration of the nature of conspiracy theories and those who believe in them. Like that book, “Numero Zero” features a clique of writers — in this case, hack journalists — who cynically try to exploit conspiratorial ideas for their own gain and wind up embroiled in a dangerous plot.
Set in Milan in 1992, “Numero Zero” is narrated by Colonna, a freelance writer hired to ghostwrite an exposé for Simei, the head of a rather unique journalistic enterprise. Simei works for Commendatore Vimercate, a Berlusconi-esque mogul who “wants to enter the inner sanctum of finance, banking, and perhaps also the quality papers.” To this end, he has funded a fake newspaper, Domani, that “will consist of “twelve . . . 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.”
“Once the Commendatore has shown he can create problems for the so-called inner sanctum of finance and politics,” Simei explains, “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.” In turn, Simei wants Colonna to document “the story of a year’s work setting up a newspaper that will never be published” and turn it into a book, which he can then use to extort Vimercate.
Though this complex, wheels-within-wheels plotting is classic Eco, “Numero Zero” stands apart from the rest of his oeuvre in a few ways. For one, it is relatively short — less than 200 pages. And it lacks much of the rich, colorful writing of his previous novels, instead opting for long stretches of expository dialogue in which characters lecture one another on Italy’s complex political history. Much of it comes off as didactic — though perhaps the dialogue has a flow or cadence in the original Italian that isn’t captured by Richard Dixon’s translation.
Colonna strikes up a tentative friendship with one of his colleagues, Romano Braggadocio, a muckraking writer with a penchant for wild theorizing. Braggadocio treats Colonna to a series of long monologues detailing a grand conspiracy that he is investigating. He claims to have discovered that Mussolini was not killed in 1945, but instead was hidden away by the Allies in case they needed him to reemerge to lead a secret army against Italian communists in the event that they managed to take control of the government. Eco bases this on the real-life Operation Gladio, a secret network of NATO-organized paramilitary cells across Europe during the Cold War that were kept in place to serve as potential resistance fighters in case of a communist takeover. Colonna is deeply skeptical at first, but soon finds himself swept up in Braggadocio’s yarn-spinning.
Through Braggadocio, Eco gives readers a perhaps-too-thorough survey of postwar Italian politics, and the slow-burn revelation of his Mussolini theory reads like an encyclopedia entry. By comparison, Simei’s wry, concise pontifications on the power and potency of the mass media — and how Domani plans to abuse that power — are the book’s most fascinating passages. “The most effective insinuation,” he advises his writers, “is the one that gives facts that are valueless in themselves, yet cannot be denied because they are true.”
At times, “Numero Zero” feels almost like a rough treatment or a CliffsNotes version of an Umberto Eco novel. The story is stripped down to the bare essentials, and it lacks the same sense of substance and wonder as his prior works. But there’s enough of the author’s ingenuity at work to make it worthwhile as a quick, entertaining read.
By Umberto Eco
Translated, from the Italian, by Richard Dixon. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 191 pp., $24Michael Patrick Brady, a writer from Boston, can be reached at mike@
michaelpatrickbrady.com. Follow him on Twitter @michaelpbrady.