Umberto Eco passed away in 2016 leaving behind an astounding intellectual legacy of unsurpassed depth. Numero Zero happens to be his seventh work of fiction.
A towering figure of Italian literature, Eco arrived on the scene in the ’80s with his debut, best-selling novel The Name of the Rose. The next three decades witnessed Eco write one seminal book after another. Most met with success, though none could set the bar higher than his debut novel.
Eco’s genius lay in not only constructing beautiful narratives but also in craftily deploying historical facts laced with the fiction of conspiracy theories and media hoaxes.
Unlike his previous novels, 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 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. His remarkable ingenuity to chain together disparate events turns up the groove.
Plot and Characters
The protagonist of Numero Zero is a washed up 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 Domani.
The existence of the newspaper is a sham. A shady media tycoon, Commendator Vimercate plans to use the newspaper as a springboard to fulfil his ulterior agenda. Once he is successful in his sinister designs, Domani won’t have to exist.
Simei lets in Colonna on this secret and hands him a parallel assignment to ghostwrite a book. Via the book, he wants to depict an against-all-odds struggle of an upright newspaper versus the immoral fringe of society. Actually, he intends to profit from the impending fate of the newspaper.
Accompanying Colonna and Simei are a mix of characters. Most of these characters 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. Umberto Eco 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. His theory is 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 his 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. These include 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.
Eco weaves in clandestine cliques like Aginter press and P2 Masonic lodge to add to the mystery.
Numero Zero unfolds much like a Quentin Tarantino movie. A slow-burning, non-linear affair 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 dialogues, 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. I loved the way 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.”
Umberto Eco’s legacy will remain cemented in the world of literature as a doyen. 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 the book at all, had it not been for the literary maestro at the helm. After all, this is my first novel in ages. 🙂