Published: 2 December 2015Umberto Eco, 2012 Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Writer Pictures
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As a world-class semiotician, Umberto Eco is aware that absent signs and missing texts may be as significant as existing ones. In The Name of the Rose (1983), murder and mayhem are triggered by a lost work of Aristotle; Ecos latest novel, Numero Zero, a sprightly satire of the tabloid press, set in the 1990s, features a Milanese newspaper that is established but never intended to appear. Instead, having run it in dummy form, the proprietor will finally agree not to put it on the market an event that may prove discomforting for certain political and financial interest groups in return for an entry ticket to the corridors of power.
Entitled Domani (Tomorrow), the phantom journal will break with the tedious custom of reporting what has just happened and speculate instead on the future. It also takes the phrase making news entirely literally. Conscious of the uncultivated nature of its potential readership, the paper will offer the kind of crosswords that ask who ruled Germany during the Second World War and run a competition in which readers are asked to provide the silliest answer to an equally silly question. There will be a glut of horoscopes, all of them full of rosily optimistic predictions. Since public apologies are now in fashion, the paper will carry a broad range of them. Stating that the Catholic Church has changed its original position on the rotation of the Earth, for example, will be rewritten as Pope Apologises to Galileo. A piece on anti-clichs (Greek is all math to me; hard drugs are the first step to smoking joints; dont make yourself at home; lets stand on ceremony) is abandoned as too sophisticated for the audience.
The journalist Braggadocio, a man of paranoid proclivities who believes that all cars have been specially designed so that he cant buy them, comes up with the theory that Mussolini was never actually killed. Instead, he was spirited away in a vast right-wing conspiracy that lasted as late as the deaths of Roberto Calvi and Pope John Paul I. In this sense, Braggadocio claims, the shadow of Mussolini has secretly dominated Italian politics from 1945 to the present day, involving NATO, the Mafia, the CIA, prime ministers such as Giulio Andreotti and a good many secretly infiltrated left-wing outfits such as the Red Brigades. Fascist terrorists, the police, the secret service and certain senior political officials have all been working hand in glove.
Is Braggadocio on to something? The narrative scrupulously hedges its bets. This journalist is not the most mentally balanced of investigators, though many would seem to take seriously a number of his claims. After all, not all conspiracy theories are bunkum. On the contrary, it is common sense that from time to time groups of civilized men and women gather in smoke-free rooms to plot the downfall of their enemies. And the book ends with a shocking event that might be taken to confirm at least some of Braggadocios exotic conjectures.
Eco has more scintillating ideas than most contemporary writers put together
Whatever the truth, the narrator another journalist, by the name of Colonna is disgusted by the degenerate state of his nation (corruption rife, Mafiosi officially in parliament, tax dodgers in government, and the only ones to end up in prison are Albanian chicken thieves), and plans to pull out of the whole sorry mess and head with his lover for some utopian refuge. A current of sober disenchantment runs beneath the comic high-jinks he describes. The worlds a nightmare, my love, he tells his girlfriend. Id like to get off, but they tell me we cant, were on an express train. Alternatively, rather than fleeing, he might simply wait for Italy to join the Third World.
The Mussolini theory, which on the face of it seems rather awkwardly interwoven with the story of Domani, actually has some intriguing affinities with it. Both narratives turn in postmodern style on the problematic relation between the real and illusory. A sign, Eco once wrote, is anything one can use to lie with. If the truth contains an ineradicable admixture of fiction, the imaginary can sometimes reveal the truth more effectively than science or historiography. Besides, what if Braggadocios paranoia were itself the truth? The novels epigraph is E. M. Forsters famous injunction Only connect, and the paranoiac is one for whom all phenomena are ominously interlinked. The condition, Freud once remarked with Hegel well in mind, is the nearest thing there is to philosophy. In a globalized world, however, spotting hidden connections may be no more than common sense. In any case, novels, too, tend to banish contingency in their impulse to shapeliness, so that for them, as for the paranoid, nothing can happen by chance.
Like most of Ecos novels, this one brims with exuberant inventiveness, and its tone is (in Richard Dixons translation) agreeably amused, ironic, worldly-wise. In the end, however, Numero Zero is less a coherent narrative than a rather random set of comic fantasies, a convenient vehicle for some of Ecos baroque imaginings. There is a lot of talk, most of it fascinating, some of it not, and not much action. The Mussolini story, complete with dates, minor developments, sub-plots and improbable twists, provides us with a little more information than we need, so that one begins to wonder whether the author is not as obsessed with the subject as his character. Even so, Eco has more scintillating ideas than most contemporary writers put together, a fact that more than compensates for the bagginess of this most recent novel.
Terry Eagleton is Distinguished Visiting Professor in English at Lancaster, Notre Dame and the National University of Ireland. His books include, most recently, How To Read Literature, which was published in 2013, and Hope Without Optimism, which appeared last month.