Umberto Eco's seventh novel, "Numero Zero," represents the continuation of a theme. The story of a newspaper that doesn't publish, it traces a conspiracy, real or imagined, linking a long line of events in Italian history, from the death of Mussolini to the 1978 kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro by the Red Brigade.
"The point," a journalist named (aptly) Braggadocio insists, "is everything we heard was false, or distorted, and for twenty years we've been living a lie. I always said: never believe what they tell you …" That this extends to the very story the reporter is telling is, of course, the whole idea.
Eco has long played with the question of meaning — in his criticism and essays, his embrace of semiotics and intertextuality, and his fiction as well. He remains best known (in America, anyway) for his 1980 novel "The Name of the Rose," but it is two later novels, "Foucault's Pendulum" and "The Prague Cemetery," that "Numero Zero" most invokes. In those books too he illuminates conspiracies with deep roots, stretching across history: a series of shadow narratives that explain, or undermine our explanation, of the world. In the former, such a conspiracy is invented, although it still has profound ramifications; in the latter, perhaps, not so much.
"Numero Zero" sits somewhere in the middle, blending fiction and real-life events. Even its protagonists don't fully believe the narrative they are spinning — until, that is, danger asserts itself. Are the elusive stories Braggadocio unfurls real or are they only his "reconstruction of the facts"? The question takes on added resonance in the landscape of the newspaper office, where nothing is as it appears.
The paper, called Domani, or tomorrow, is a fantasy, a kind of secret publication, funded by a hotel and communications magnate; it intends to publish only "[t]welve zero issues — 0/1, 0/2 and so on — dummy issues printed in a tiny number of exclusive copies that the Commendatore will inspect, before arranging for them to be seen by certain people he knows."
The purpose is to use the paper as a means of threat, a mechanism of blackmail, with the promise that it will be shut down in return for access to the corridors of power. That's an interesting idea, and it pushes "Numero Zero" into the realm of satire, as Domani's writers and editors concoct a succession of stories and features, culminating in Braggadocio's conspiracy.
What Eco is saying is that it doesn't matter, particularly, what the truth is, that this is not why people turn to news. Indeed, news itself is not the issue; rather, power is. "You're saying we have to check whether or not the Commendatore is going to like each article?" a character asks Domani's editor, an amiable hack named Simei. The response? "Of course … he's our majority shareholder, as they say."
It's hard, in our age of media consolidation and corporate ownership, not to read that exchange without a little shiver, a little chill. Or this: "The point is that newspapers are not there for spreading news but for covering it up. X happens, you have to report it, but it causes embarrassment for too many people, so in the same edition, you add some shock headlines — mother kills four children, savings at risk of going up in smoke, letter from Garibaldi insulting his lieutenant Nino Bixio discovered, etc — so news drowns in a great sea of information."
Although "Numero Zero" takes place in 1992, Eco may as well be describing our current journalistic landscape of hot takes and click bait. How do we process the overload? The implication is that we can't. Not only that, but the whole purpose is to overwhelm us, to keep us from understanding how everything adds up.
If this sounds cynical, it is, although it's also compelling, a kind of contextual lament. "It's stuff of forty-five years ago," Simei says of one possible story idea, "and our readers don't have a clue what happened ten years ago."
And yet for all that, "Numero Zero" feels oddly empty as a novel, undeveloped, not quite fully thought out. On the one hand, it's a short book, barely 160 pages, and it has something of a sketched-out quality, like a treatment more than a fully rendered narrative. Its characters, even its narrator — another hack named Colonna, burned out in middle age — lack a certain necessary inner life, and many of its scenes present as lectures, with long expository monologues that introduce ideas or conjectures without much of a dramatic drive.
"I couldn't figure out," Colonna tells us, "whether Braggadocio was a brilliant narrator who was feeding me his story in installments, with the necessary suspense at each 'to be continued,' or whether he was still actually trying to piece the plot together." The same, unfortunately might be said of Eco in this work.
What, I want to ask, is his intent here? What is he trying to say? If the idea is to explore the ways media manipulate, or manage, information, Eco needs to take it further; a newspaper that doesn't publish is no real newspaper at all. If the purpose is to peel back the layers of accepted reality, to question the fabric of the official story, then for me at least this comes too little and too late.
Regardless, "Numero Zero" never becomes fully believable, less a story than a thought experiment. "[I]s it really all over," Braggadocio asks, "or are certain diehard groups still working away in the shadows?" The flaw of the novel is not that the answer remains uncertain — how could it not? — but that it doesn't seem to matter in any lasting way.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 164 pp., $24