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Umberto Eco, Numero zero.

Umberto Eco, Numero zero, Bompiani: Milan, 2015; 218 pp.: 9788845278518, 17 [euro] (hbk)

Umberto Eco's latest novel Numero zero is a historical novel with satirical overtones. The plot is centered on the attempt to establish a new daily newspaper (Domani) by a group of failed journalists who will initially work on 12 zero issues (experimental issues) that will not appear in print since the paper will never in fact be published. In fact, the intent in establishing Domani is not to make it a true newspaper, but for its publisher (Commendatore Vimercate) to use it as a tool for gaining access into a restricted circle of people from the worlds of finance, banking, and journalism, in case he were denied access into the circle by its members. The setting of the novel is Milan in 1992, and the main event on which most of the plot is centered is Mussolini's death, which occurred on April 28, 1945. Was the disfigured body hanging head down, with the body of Claretta Petacci, in Piazzale Loreto in Milan the real body of II Ducei Or was it perhaps Mussolini's double? Based on available documents on which historiography relied, the body was indeed that of Benito Mussolini. Nonetheless, some questions still remain unanswered according to some cryptohistorians and certainly according to Braggadocio, the obsessed conspiracy theorist of the editorial team, who tells Colonna that he is investigating Mussolini's death because in the official version of the story there is something odd about it. In his view, it is not convincing at all. For Braggadocio, the hypothesis of a double is the only reasonable one that could explain why, upon his arrival in Como (Como was still a stronghold of the Fascist regime) on the evening of April 25, 1945, Mussolini refused to meet with his wife Rachele and his two children Romano and Anna Maria who had arrived the day before. For Braggadocio, he refused to meet with them because he did not want to disclose the secret of his double and thus put his life at risk. Also, no one can say for sure that the body found in Piazzale Loreto was that of Mussolini. Further in support of this hypothesis, the postmortem report stated that the facial traits were almost unrecognizable and that there was no evidence of an enlarged liver, syphilis, or a duodenal ulcer, all documented ailments from which Mussolini suffered. To the likelihood that II Duce was still alive, Braggadocio connects other important events that constitute Italy's great post-World War II mysteries and secret right-wing organizations. For example, he links to it the Operazione Gladio, a codename for the clandestine NATO 'stay-behind' operation created to prevent the spread of communism in Italy; the neo-fascist coup d'etat (Golpe Borghese, 1970) planned by Prince Junio Valerio Borghese; the notorious Masonic lodge Propaganda Due (P2) headed by the 'Venerable' Grand Master Licio Gelli implicated in a number of Italian crimes, including the bankruptcy (1982) of the Banco Ambrosiano, whose main shareholder was the Vatican Bank (Istituto per le Opere di Religione, I.O.R.); the murder (1982) of the Banco Ambrosiano's chairman Roberto Calvi; the collapse of Michele Sindona's financial empire; and the suspicious death of Pope John Paul I, who had sat on St. Peter's Seat for only 33 days when he died in 1978.

The narrator presents the story with a limited perspective and narrates it in the first-person. His knowledge is based on what characters actually reveal in the unfolding of the narration. For this reason we can say that he is a homodiegetic narrator who also takes the role of one of the two protagonists. The editorial guidelines set forth by Simei point to the fabrication of ploys, falsehood, and mud-slinging campaigns. As a journalist and a writer, Simei is not worth very much, but as a falsifier of information he is indeed a genius. This is, of course, according to Colonna. In fact, in one of the editorial meetings, Simei says that to invalidate an accusation it is not necessary to prove the contrary, only to discredit the accuser. Eco has been criticized in Italy for the reduced length of Numero zero. According to some reviewers, the short length is attributable to a lack of inspiration which, in turn, devoids the novel of a true and authentic value. The length of a novel has nothing to do with its content value. As a matter of fact, there are many novels in modern Italian and non-Italian literature that are 200 pages or less and are considered to be literary masterpieces. The length of a novel is not a good factor for deciding whether to give or withhold adequate critical consideration of its artistic literary worth. On the contrary, Numero zero is rich in literary critical insights, and aims to discuss them playfully by making the narration unfold around the main theme, journalism, and the silent language therein contained. The silent language of journalism is a sort of hidden, powerful force that manipulates the masses inadvertently. This characteristic is attributable not only to the nature of such a medium, but also and perhaps more to the way in which it is used. Numero zero is not 'a perfect manual of bad journalism,' as someone wrote, but rather a manual that heightens the reader's awareness of the hidden dimensions of bad journalism. Thus, Humphrey Bogart's remarks in Deadline-USA that Eco uses (p. 136)--'That's the press, baby! The press, and there is nothing you can do, nothing' and 'it is not the news that makes the newspaper but the newspaper that makes the news' (p. 57)--are overt examples that should make the reader think critically about the medium for what it is, and the manipulative effects it exerts on people when it comes out in print just based on the way in which journalists and editors happen to write and assemble the pieces. Also, Eco centers the novel's plot on journalism because it is, by and large, the medium of the written word, and words, which are utilized and live in a system of communication (language), can be used not only to tell the truth but also to tell lies. With this view in mind, Eco the philosopher and semiotician takes key semiotic notions from his critical theory works, as well as from critical works of other theorists (Marshall McLuhan, for example), and applies them to fiction. A fiction, this latest novel, that tells the reader what the state of the world is, and that reality not only empowers fiction, but occasionally, as in the case of Numero zero, may even surpass it.

Reviewed by: Raffaele De Benedictis, Wayne State University, USA
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Author:De Benedictis, Raffaele
Publication:Forum Italicum
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2016
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