Umberto Eco’s slimmest novel to date (a compact 200 pages) takes place in early 1990s Milan where Colonna, a failed 50-year-old writer, joins a team of has-beens and never-will-be’s heading a start-up newspaper called Domani (Tomorrow).
It has been founded by a hotel and media tycoon, and the small team has been briefed to create a dozen fake (or zero) issues to demonstrate the potential of the newspaper that is, as far as its founder is concerned, to elevate his position in society through strategic blackmail. Colonna’s role is more complicated still: while his reporter colleagues believe he is one of them, he has been secretly hired for a lucrative sum to ghostwrite a biography of the newspaper’s editor-in-chief, Simei.
Colonna and Simei are alone in the knowledge that the contents of each dummy issue is to be guided by the unmasking of Italy’s elite bankers, politicians and industrialists in control of the economy, who Domani’s eccentric publisher believes will welcome him into their inner sanctum in exchange for abandoning the dangerous publication.
The remaining four, oblivious, Domani reporters are subjected to long lectures about desired journalistic techniques: “Blue-skying” stories, dumbing down information, quoting imaginary sources and maintaining a thoroughly subjective editorial line while appearing objective. Finding himself at the tail end of a miserable career of tutoring, translation and ghostwriting, Colonna warms to his lofty position, and is eager to impart his wisdom. “News doesn’t need to be invented,” he says. “All you have to do is recycle it.”
Eco has created a rich opportunity to thoroughly satirise the newspaper business and lampoon sensationalist journalism. (Of the book review pages, Colonna suggests his staff: “Turn the wretched little book into something human that even a housewife will understand, so she has no regrets if she doesn’t read it, and anyway, who reads books that newspapers review? Generally speaking, not even the reviewer. We should be thankful if the book has been read by the author.”) These prolonged tangents, unfortunately, make for clumsy storytelling. Long tracts of information, or page after page listing journalistic cliches, are often concluded by a character saying, “Thanks for listening. I needed to talk to someone.”
Even the novel’s central mystery, a conspiracy theory offered up by the unfortunately-named Domani journalist Braggadocio that Mussolini did not perish at the end of World War Two and is alive and well thanks to imaginative autopsies and body doubles, suffers this same fate. Once Colonna earns Braggadocio’s trust, he notes that, “I couldn’t figure out whether Braggadocio was a brilliant narrator who was feeding me his story in instalments, with the necessary suspense at each ‘to be continued,’ or whether he was still actually trying to piece the plot together.”
As a gripping political mystery, Numero Zero falls disappointingly short. It has been widely noted that Numero Zero was originally intended to be published as Eco’s fourth novel about 15 years ago, but the author abandoned it as he feared the characters were too similar to those in Foucault’s Pendulum. It seems that may have been a valid concern, but readers who regard Eco as the master of conspiracy theories and imaginary histories will still find plenty to love here.