Umberto Eco: Numero Zero

November 28, 2015

51dLXWHIREL._AA160_I think I shall stop looking forward to new novels from Umberto Eco, as the last couple have been disappointments. The previous one, The Prague Cemetery, was long and a bit tiresome as Eco got off on conspiracy theories with his take on that old chestnut, the Protocols of The Elders of Zion; this one is at least shorter.

It’s another conspiracy theory novel, and so the narrative is layered like an onion, to create vagueness and obscurity, as a fake newspaper, never intended to be published, is projected and developed in order to blackmail a leading industrialist; we are quickly embroiled in murky Italian politics of the sixties, seventies and eighties, enmeshed in various events and names we vaguely recall having heard of but never really understood. Perhaps Eco’s native readers will get rather more from this than the rest of us? And then the big conspiracy, the possibility of Mussolini’s death having been faked using a double, is introduced, and this is where it all seems somewhat rushed, and becomes a little tedious, as it feels a bit as though this section has been spliced into a rather lighter novel… Various plot developments are also rather predictable after this point. After I got a bit tired of all this, Eco collapsed the entire plot into an interestingly twisted conclusion: is his heroine’s logical and matter-of-fact explanation of everything the obvious one, or are there just endless layers of conspiracy at work, ultimately normalising everyone’s paranoia, and allowing the dark forces to continue their work unobserved?

Eco establishes the atmosphere at the start of his novel really well: there is powerful satire of the media, particularly the press. Its penchant for inventing, creating and managing the news agenda rings very true in these times; Eco casts serious doubt on all journalistic enterprise, and rightly so, it seems to me, living in a country where so much of the press is controlled by rapacious business interests. Very quickly we become unable to distinguish the truth from the lies, either from his fictional hack journalists, or from Eco’s own pen; the likelihood of hidden agendas adds more layers of obfuscation, and this is his best achievement in Numero Zero. We become clear that newspapers groom their readers, in order then to provide them with more of the same: think about it… (or am I just drawn into the conspiratorial web?)

Eco is a mediaevalist primarily, and that is why his two novels set in mediaeval times, the superb detective story which is The Name of the Rose, with its tribute to the master, Sherlock Holmes, and Baudolino, with its fictionalisation of the Prester John legend, are such masterpieces. His other novels are much paler in comparison.

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