Numero Zero by Umberto Eco
In Umberto Eco’s slight new novel Numero Zero, a struggling writer named Dottor Colonna agrees to ghostwrite a memoir for Simei, the future head of Domani, a yet-to-be-published newspaper. Simei’s intentions with Domani are suspect: Commendator Vimercate, a wealthy, high-powered businessman, has employed him to create twelve “zero” issues of Domani as examples of the newspaper’s potential power. Once Vimercate proves to his corporate rivals that a conspiratorial muckraking newspaper would be a problematic enterprise in the wrong hands, he can use it as leverage in the “so-called inner sanctum of finance and politics.” Colonna’s memoir is a backup plan: “if all else fails,” Simei explains, ” I’ll publish the book. It’ll be a bombshell and should give me a tidy sum in royalties.”
This is a thin and clunky premise, but it becomes quickly clear in Numero Zero that Eco is more interested in discussing themes of ethics in journalism and storytelling than he is interested in an air-tight plot. Numero Zero reads at times like an old hard-boiled pulp novel, particularly in the book’s first-person introductory and final chapters where Colonna explicitly discusses noir themes and how they relate to his ghostwriting:
“Writing detective stories for somebody else was easy, all you had to do was imitate the style of Chandler or, at worst, Mickey Spillane. But when I tried writing a book of my own, I realized that in describing someone or something, I’d always be making cultural allusions…”
One can make a sound claim that genre-writing is little more than a re-appropriation of existing ideas and tone, but what about re-appropriation in nonfiction, or journalism? Much of journalism sounds the same (facts, naturally, eclipse narrative flair), but Simei believes he can solve this issue by looking toward the future, to tomorrow. His plan with Domani is to bend truth to create tomorrow’s stories: not lie but, through a series of well-placed turns of phrase, create the illusion of substance and scoop. He asks his writers to try to break free of their journalistic standards (with their heavy foothold in the past) and come up with a new, forward-thinking voice.
There’s a lot of hazy weight to the broad-reaching ideas of Numero Zero, which would have been better served instead as an essay. Dropping these ideas into a novel compromises much of their gravitas, especially considering their proximity to a hackneyed love story and a prolix and skimmable conspiracy theory.
While investigating the other staffers for Simei’s memoir, Colonna falls for the writer Maia, who grows increasingly frustrated with Simei’s insistence on compromising her professionalism. They have a nice, tender, relationship that is incongruous with the rest of the novel. The second (and final) plot development surrounds editor Braggadocio and his “scoop that would sell a hundred thousand copies of Domani, if only it was already on sale.” Halfway through the novel, Braggadocio begins to tell the “facts as we all know them” about the death of Mussolini in 1945, and dominates the second half of Numero Zero reasoning out a body-double theory that sounds like something out of Anthony Hope’s 1894 novel The Prisoner of Zenda. Braggadocio practically hijacks Numero Zero and swaps it with a different novel. While this a clever formal synchronicity, it is also exhausting.
This conspiracy derails Numero Zero away from its journalistic ideas and places a blathering rant in its stead. By laying out every Mussolini fact and plothole in painstaking detail for nearly half the length of his novel, it’s unclear whether Eco expect his readers to actually believe this imposter-Mussolini theory. If we are, Eco fails because these facts are coming from a character in a novel and are inherently controvertible. If we’re not meant to be transformed into believers, and are just meant to watch the wheels of conspiracy spin, then Eco succeeds at the cost of pacing and continuity and renders diminutive the other, better ideas over which he previously toiled.