Umberto Eco (1932-2016) passed away in February leaving behind an astounding intellectual legacy of unsurpassed depth. A towering figure in the world of literature, Eco arrived on the scene in the ’80s with his debut, best-selling novel ‘The Name of the Rose’. Over the next three decades, Eco wrote one seminal book after another, though none could set the bar higher than his debut novel. Eco’s genius often lay in not only constructing beautiful narratives, but also, in craftily deploying historical facts laced with the fiction of conspiracy theories and media hoaxes. ‘Numero Zero’ happens to be his seventh work of fiction. Unlike his previous novels, such as, The Name of the Rose’, ‘The Foucaults’ Pendulum’ and others, ‘Numero Zero’ is the slimmest in volume, 191 pages to be precise, and also the one with a rather non-convoluted plot, at least in relative capacity.
Eco’s stunning grasp of the medieval culture has always amazed me. His fixation with conspiracy theories, cabals and camarillas, together with his formal vocation in semiotics, I believe, led to his dexterity in both fiction and non-fiction. Numero Zero, though a less eruditory affair, remains high on tension and intelligence quotient just like Eco’s other books.
The events of ‘Numero Zero’ unfold in Milan of the early ’90s. Strings of the story, however, go back to the mysterious death of Il duce, Benito Mussolini and his mistress at Lake Como in 1945. At first, I thought that Numero Zero will take the ‘alternate history’ route, but, much to my pleasure, Eco stays true to historical events. It’s his remarkable ingenuity to chain together disparate events, however, that turns up the groove.
The protagonist of ‘Numero Zero’ is a washed up, on-the-wrong-side-of-the-50s, two-bit hack, Dottor Colonna. Colonna gets a fortuitous and somewhat, murky contract to ghostwrite a book for Simei, the slippery editor in chief of an about-to-be-launched, avant-garde newspaper called Domani. The existence of the newspaper, however, is a sham. A shady media tycoon, Commendator Vimercate, Domani and wants to use it as a springboard to fulfil his ulterior agenda: to blackmail influential financiers. And, once he has ticked his boxes, Vimercate will just shut it down for good. Simei lets in Colonna on this secret and hands him a parallel assignment to ghostwrite a book. Actually, Simei intends to capitalize on the hoopla of Domani’s closure and publish his book that depicts an against-all-odds struggle of an honest and upright newspaper versus the immoral fringe of society.
Accompanying Colonna and Simei are a mix of characters, most of whom, I could sense, are redundant from the get-go and are indeed hard to recall after a few chapters. Of the few important ones are Maia, Colonna’s love interest and Romano Braggadocio, the key tub-thumper in the book. Both characters keep the reader confused, courtesy the author, who expertly implants several insinuations along the way that don’t let you make up your mind about characters’ integrity.
Eco sets up Romano Braggadocio’s character to draw the reader into a serpentine nexus of subplots and intrigues. It’s Braggadocio’s machinating character through whom Eco evokes the conspiracies of shadowy conventicles. Braggadocio is fully convinced that Mussolini’s death in 1945 was part of a wider conspiracy, and that it was his body-double who was sacrificed at Lake Como, not Mussolini. Now if you follow Umberto Eco, you would see a lot of Eco’s own idiosyncrasies manifest in Braggadocio’s character, the most predominant being the latter’s passion for occultist theories. In a later chapter, Bragadoccio dovetails a series of authentic postwar crimes in Italy – the controversial death of Pope John Paul I, the Piazza Fontana bombing, the assassination of the former Italian premier Aldo Moro and the Vatican banking scandal – with the clandestine cliques such as Aginter press and P2 Masonic lodge. He asserts, “The shadow of Mussolini, who is taken for dead, wholly dominates Italian events from 1945 until, I’d say, now.”
Numero Zero unfolds much like a Quentin Tarantino movie: a slow-burning, non-linear plot with each key character seemingly pursuing an agenda of their own and where characters often engage in digressive and sub-reference-heavy dialogues. Speaking of dialogue, I loved the piece in the third chapter where Braggadocio rambles a long list of compelling nuggets of information about what to look for when buying a car and how Eco manages to infuse a conspiracy angle even in a bland, technical topic of car-buying. Then, there are several instances where Eco conveys his own frustrations against media via one of the characters. In one such instance of understated, sardonic humor, Simei lectures his team, “To answer an accusation you don’t have to prove it’s wrong, all you have to do is undermine the authority of the accuser.”
As his followers await Umberto Eco’s last book – Pape Satan Aleppe (non-fiction, yet to be translated into English), his legacy is cemented in the world of literature as a literary polymath. His penultimate work, Numero Zero, with all its convolutions and intrigues, showcases his neat ability to seek out a conspiracy in every historical cubbyhole. On a slightly different note, I might not have read ‘Numero Zero’ at all, had it not been for the literary maestro at the helm. After all, this is my first novel in ages.