A Maze of Emergence: Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

As inauspicious and paradoxical as it sounds, Umberto Eco’s sixth novel is a success precisely because it portrays its own irrelevance and insignificance. Of course, Numero Zero doesn’t do this directly, but via the spinning of a conspiratorial maze that ends up becoming an allegory for the conditions of its own emergence. Set in 1992, as the Cold War subsided into a fool’s peace and the Italian political system was decimated by corruption scandals, it chronicles struggling hack Colonna as he’s voluntarily sucked into the demimonde of tabloid rags and neo-fascist scheming. Even if its 18 chapters comprise the leanest novel in the Eco canon (which some will undoubtedly view as a good thing), and even if it’s a touch underdeveloped in certain aspects, its taut cabbalistic intrigues plunge the murkiest depths of post-WWII Italy and the West.

It all starts when the middle-aged Colonna — a college-dropout and occasional German translator — is approached to ghostwrite a book about a soon-to-be-launched newspaper, Domani (Italian for ‘tomorrow’). Commissioned by Editor-in-Chief Simei, he’s informed from the outset that Domani is merely an excuse for its owner (“Commendatore Vimercate”) to smear his opponents and threaten his way into the inner sanctum of finance, banking and hopefully even the quality papers.” The plan is to shut it down after its run of 12 “zero” issues have worked their slanderous magic, and even though its uninformed editorial staff will be employed to fabricate sensationalist drivel, Colonna is tasked with penning a memoir that will recount how it “failed because it was impossible to have a free voice” and be scrupulously objective in late-20th-Century Italy.

With the novel’s chapters divided into separate days spanning over two months, Eco then proceeds to weave this tale from Colonna’s first-person angle, illuminating how newspapers and the media at large not only ‘make the news’ out of nothing, but make specifically the kind of fluff that serves only to distract the public from the real news. At one point, Simei advises his staff on “ways of passing on opinions undetected” and “learning to create news where there wasn’t any.” At another, he forbids one of Colonna’s teammates from pursuing a lead into fraudulent military orders in Malta because Domani’s proprietor received his “Commendatore” title from one such order, while at another still, he warns against reporting on a money-laundering restaurant because “we’ll have the police on our backs as you’ll be criticizing them for failing to detect the fraud.”

But Numero Zero isn’t simply a mildly picaresque work about the sleaziness of the (Italian) press and the dashed literary dreams of its employees, since Eco turns the novel in a more sinister direction with the investigations of the chauvinistic and appropriately named Braggadocio. In installments, Braggadocio confides in Colonna that he’s unearthed evidence suggesting that Mussolini wasn’t captured and executed in 1945, but rather escaped to the Vatican, where “they put him on a boat for Argentina posing as a sickly, cantankerous hooded friar.” Worse still, he has reason to believe that Il Duce spent the next 25 years in the South American nation, waiting it out while neo-fascist elements within Italy fomented a coup that would restore the former dictator to power.

Almost needless to say, this is precisely where the plot thickens. Braggadocio and Colonna continue their secret probings into “a scoop that would sell a hundred thousand copies of Domani,” while the paper itself continues with its petty muckraking and horoscope columns. In parallel, these separate threads function to cast Italian journalism in the most unflattering possible light, insinuating that it simultaneously propagates trivial lies and conceals significant truths. According to Eco and the cynical environment he deftly models, it’s a (barely) veiled political instrument, one which was/is used by those in power to further their interests and strengthen their grip on Italy.

For the most part, he illustrates this role through the newfound, dialog-prioritizing terseness of his prose. Economical sentences like “We laughed and then moved on” and “We’re doing journalism here, not literature” outline an archetypal newspaper which, for all its pretensions of being “a model of journalism independent from all pressure,” is focused myopically on its extra-journalistic goals (e.g. pleasing its owner, avoiding the wrath of the powerful, making money on the basis of populist indulgence). And just as the novel’s curt descriptions of “dusty wine bottles” and “bombed-out houses” evoke the cloaked poverty of the media and the one-dimensional product it peddles, so too do the novel’s characters. For example, Maia — a dissatisfied gossip columnist who “wanted to be a serious journalist” — is revealed early on as being autistic, her tendency to assume that other people are thinking exactly the same thing as her being the perfect metaphor for a media that, as Simei puts it, strives to “teach people how to think.”

Yet, for all their metaphorical and symbolic resonance, the characters are perhaps the weakest aspect of Numero Zero. Excepting the first chapter’s overview of Colonna’s disenchanted student days and his descent into ghostwriting, none of them have anything beyond the most slender of backstories, depriving them of apparent motivations for why they’re committing to Domani and plowing ahead with its contributions to ideological pollution. In some ways, their lack of realization suitably emphasizes the themes of the novel and how the constraints of mass-media publishing reduce fully-formed people to shallow ciphers of corporate-political interests, yet it also hurts a couple of plot strands, including Braggadocio’s monomaniacal and hazardous drive to uncover the truth of the Mussolini conspiracy. More seriously, it also undermines the romance that Colonna enjoys later in the book, insofar as the almost minimalist brevity of the novel makes the flourishing and consummation of this romance appear with considerable abruptness.

That said, this is the only appreciable flaw of an otherwise impeccable conspiracy thriller, and to be fair to Eco, it doesn’t directly impinge on its central messages and concerns. Moreover, such messages and concerns penetrate to the very core of Italy, intersecting with the nation’s actual history to imply that, just as Mussolini is claimed not to have died, so too has the nation essentially remained a fascist state. Eco’s thoroughgoing research into Europe’s historical flow is knitted seamlessly into his vivid fictive imagination, subtly engendering the conclusion that the mani pulite inquiries which brought down entire political parties in 1992 and helped bring Silvio Berlusconi to power in 1994 were deviously spun by the media (much of which Berlusconi owned) for the purposes of advancing certain ends.

As if this weren’t alarming enough, the semiologist and philosopher in Eco also unsurprisingly uses Numero Zero to sink deeper than politics and question the possibility of objective truth itself. Exploiting the imagery of bones and skeletons as figures for the fundamental, underlying reality of the world (e.g. there’s a clandestine meeting in an ossuary at one point), Colonna ends up believing that all the words and beliefs overlying this reality are inherently subjective, manipulative and deceptive, that even “the pink body of an angel [is] a deceptive integument that cloaks a skeleton.” What this means is that Numero Zero, too, is part of this overlying and inescapably biased description of reality, and that it too is equally culpable of deception and duplicity. Maybe it is, and maybe this review is now similarly unable to pass judgement by extension, but at the very least it can be said that Eco’s incisive critique of the (Italian) media constitutes his tightest and most gripping novel to date, and that it won’t allow us to look at the glossy surface of (Italian) politics in quite the same way again.

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