Umberto Eco really tries our patience

It is hard to tell who knows what in Numero Zero, Eco’s deliberately confusing novel about blackmail, Musssolini’s double and an imaginary newspaper carrying yesterday’s news

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

7 November 2015

9:00 AM

Numero Zero Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon

Harvill Secker, pp.208, £16.99, ISBN: 9781910701089

Colonna, the protagonist of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, is the first to admit he is a loser. A middle-aged literary nègre, he dreams of writing his own book, but can’t break the habit of alluding to others’ work: he even refers to himself as a ‘man without qualities’. One day in 1992, he is commissioned to ghostwrite a memoir about a newspaper being launched in Milan. Domani (‘Tomorrow’) will never be published: a tycoon who finances it plans to use it as a blackmail tool in his shady dealings. The proposed title of the memoir, Domani: Yesterday, sets the tone for this pacy book that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

One of the reporters on Domani, named Braggadocio, tells Colonna he’s got a scoop: apparently, it wasn’t Mussolini but his body-double who was executed in 1945. The Duce himself spent the next several decades hiding in Argentina, or possibly the Vatican, while a conspiracy of ‘stay-behinds’ plotted to bring him back as a Fascist mascot. Braggadocio, with his ghoulish interest in corpses, doesn’t sound very convincing, and it’s not until the hapless hack is found dead that Colonna begins to think that he might have been on to something.

Whatever one makes of the various versions of Mussolini’s death (or survival) at the hands of Italian partisans, followed by the public humiliation of his (or his double’s) body, his shadow does seem to hang over postwar Italy, particularly the anni di piombi, ‘years of lead’ (1968–82), marked by terrorism and political instability. By having an unreliable narrator recount those events, Eco puts his reader on guard, exposing history as a soft science.

‘News doesn’t need to be invented,’ Colonna quips to his colleagues. ‘All you have to do is recycle it.’ Despite all the sinister theories featured in Numero Zero, yesterday’s news always makes one laugh, especially when read two decades after it happened. Domani’s investigations are all hilariously cold potatoes; horoscopes are given more attention here than prostitution or the Mafia. As for the style, when it’s suggested that misleading clichés such as ‘the eye of the storm’ should be avoided, the world-weary Colonna explains that, having taught the reader the meaning of the phrase in journalese, the press has to follow its own rules. At a news conference, the editor dismisses a piece on mobile phones, deeming them ‘a fashion that’s going to fizzle out in a year, two at most’, something that’s ‘useful only to adulterous husbands, and perhaps plumbers’. Once the editor of Avanti!, Mussolini must be turning in his (marked, yet not-quite-confirmed) grave.

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  • Woman In White

    Eco’s last worthy novel was the unjustly under-rated Baudolino, 2000, though to be fair, reading that one in anything other than the original Italian is a complete non-starter, as it is written in a modern Italian that is as deliberately imitative of Renaissance Italian as the classical 15th-16th century literature of all Western Europe was, without actually being written in that state of the language.

    No translator working according to the standardised requirements of contemporary publishing houses could ever possibly render it as it would deserve, as the kind of belle infidèle that the Renaissance itself was so fond of.

    Eco seems since then to dug himself into the literary hole of ideology, and seems to have decided to make anti-clericalism, anti-catholicism, atheist activism, and left-wing ideology into permanent features of his writing style — he used to be far better than any such gaucherie.