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Onyx reviews: Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 07/11/2015

Umberto Eco returns to a familiar theme in this brief (a scant 200 pages) novel. Ever since Foucault's Pendulum, Eco has been creating worlds where conspiracy theories conjured up on a whim come to life, much to the originators' chagrin.

The novel takes place in Milan in the early 1990s. A middle-aged, failed writer named Colonna is offered a lucrative position. His coworkers at Domani, a start-up newspaper funded by a business and media tycoon, think he's just another reporter, but he's actually been hired to ghostwrite the experiences of Simei, the paper's editor, in creating a fake publication whose sole purpose is to be used to leverage and coerce powerful people into allowing its benefactor into their lofty inner circles. 

The brief given to the new staff is to create a dozen faux (or zero) editions of the publication that are never intended to be released to the public. Instead, they are proof of concept, supposedly, meant to demonstrate how the paper will function once it's approved—and, more to the point, as blackmail. As the editor and reporters dissect the current trends in the media, Eco uses their discussions to lampoon and satirize contemporary sensationalist journalism and its consumers, the readers. Simei and the staff explore the way stories are juxtaposed to create a false impression of linkage and how to create a retraction statement that is actually a backhanded way of re-affirming the original report. They discuss how to bury embarrassing news amidst a sea of other scandalous reporting.

In recent books, Eco has had a tendency to have his characters bloviate on topics that seem dear to his heart, and never has this been more conspicuous than in Numero Zero. While the reports are "blue-skying" story ideas, they go off on prolonged tangents (for example, creating a list of all the clichés that rule the press) that most readers will probably skim or skip after the second or third extended paragraph. 

Colonna is a bit of a sad sack. He failed to get a university degree after abandoning his classes for more lucrative work translating German documents and he's never really gotten back on track since. He feels sorry for some of his coworkers who are slaving away to write stories that will never see the light of day. He's especially fond of Maia, the only woman on the paper. She is, according to others, mildly autistic, but he discovers that she's just buried deep inside her own head most of the time. Events pass by and her thoughts are still on something that happened fifteen minutes or half an hour earlier. Colonna and Maia develop a tender but under-developed relationship that gives the novel a through-line of continuity to tie all the other bits together.

Another co-worker, the unfortunately named Bragadoccio, presents to Colonna his developing theory about a conspiracy surrounding the death of Mussolini at the end of World War II. Bragadoccio starts with a series of suppositions and then bends the known and reported facts to fit. It all seems rather far-fetched and fantastical, but when his theory expands to include Gladio, the clandestine NATO "stay behind" Cold War operation, someone out there doesn't want this version of the story to be told, which is when the conspiracy seems to take on a life of its own. The book's irony is that a BBC documentary creates such a stir about elements of the conspiracy that the minor details that aren't included are drowned in a sea a facts, a technique the writers for Domani planned to use in their own paper.

Eco reportedly abandoned work on Numero Zero when he decided the characters were too similar to those from Foucault's Pendulum, and readers of both novels will probably decide that he was correct in this assessment. Still, even though the book is set over two decades in the past, Eco's warnings about the power of the media to shape and influence discussion and opinion on important subjects couldn't be more relevant today. 

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