“... corruption rife, mafiosi officially in parliament, tax dodgers in government, and the only ones to end up in prison are Albanian chicken thieves. Decent people will carry on voting for the hoodlums because they won’t believe the BBC, or they don’t watch such programmes because they’re glued to something more trashy...”
The bizarre has become the normal. That’s what Umberto Eco’s latest novel, Numero Zero, from which the above quote is taken, seems to imply. It is a slim novel (190 pages) with a scanty plot. Commendatore Vimercate is an entrepreneur who “controls a dozen or so hotels on the Adriatic coast, owns a large number of homes for pensioners and the infirm, has various shady dealings around which there’s much speculation, and controls a number of local TV channels that start at eleven at night and broadcast nothing but auctions, telesales and a few risqué shows...” He now wants to start a newspaper, or pretend to do so, because he wants to enter “the inner sanctum of finance and politics.”
A small group of specially selected journalists who have not proved their mettle anywhere yet forms the editorial staff. Braggadocio is one of them. He works on a kind of scoop which has the potential to become a great controversy. Mussolini was not killed as is believed. After all, history is a series of lies. The real Mussolini was saved by certain vested interests among the Fascists and also the Vatican. Braggadocio’s work does not carry any credibility. Until his dead body appears in an alleyway. Who killed him? Well, that’s what the novel is about.
The novel is about conspiracies that have played big roles throughout history though it mentions only one fictitious conspiracy. How much of human history is truth? The novel invites the reader to ponder.
The novel is also a fantastic satire on journalism. What comes in newspapers and TV channels may largely be lies motivated by various factors. One example from the novel: There’s a shady financial deal between Marchesse Alessandro Gerini and the Salesian Congregation (a religious order of Catholic priests). When one of the journalists offers to investigate the matter, he is told clearly to avoid creating any bad feeling with the Salesians and the Vatican. He can use a headline like “Salesians Victims of Fraud?” Maximum respect for the Salesians, the journalist is told curtly. Respect the powerful and the influential people; otherwise it’s death even for a newspaper.
The novel mentions many such strategies employed by newspapers with various motives. How to report the killing of someone by the mafia, for example, without offending the mafia? Work on people’s sentiments – that’s the secret. Ask the mother of the victim how she feels about her son’s death. “People shed a few tears and everyone is happy. Like that lovely German word Schadenfreude, pleasure at other people’s misfortune, a sentiment that a newspaper has to respect and nurture.”
Beyond the themes of history’s mendacity and the venality that underlies apparent greatness and the satire on journalism, the novel doesn’t really offer much as one would have expected from a work of Eco. Nevertheless, the novel is good. It has the power to fuel thoughts, to question the authenticity of various authorities. To question ourselves: why are we, the ordinary mortals, often bullied into having to sell ourselves for “filthy lucre”?