Losers, such as autodidacts, always possess knowledge vaster than that of winners. If you want to win, you have to know one single thing and not to waste your time on knowing everything: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers.
This bitter statement by the main character of Umberto Eco’s new novel refers primarily to himself. He is an extremely well-read loser who failed to get a university degree neglecting the lectures to work on translations from German, a very lucrative language at the time. His subsequent jobs included tutoring, writing for newspapers, editing, reading manuscripts, and ghostwriting. It is the experience in the last activity which helps Colonna (we never learn the protagonist’s first name) to land a well-paid but rather strange job which will turn his life upside down.
It is the April of 1992, and the fifty-year old Colonna arrives in Milan to meet a certain Simei who wants him to ghost-write a book titled Tomorrow: Yesterday to be released under Simei’s name. The book in question is supposed to be his memoirs recounting a year of work on a new daily newspaper called Domani (Tomorrow) that will never get published. The sponsor of the doomed project is Vimercate, a rich owner of hotels, nursery homes, TV channels, and tabloids. For the duration of a year, the eccentric tycoon wants to create and maintain a simulacrum of the editorial staff who will produce a dozen of “zero issues” of the newspaper, that is not “real” issues, but just mock-ups not meant for wide circulation. Except for Simei, who has been designated as the editor-in-chief, and Colonna, who will work as his assistant, the newspaper staff are to stay oblivious of the fact that the daily will never be launched. The six editors, five men and one woman, are employed to create sensationalist content that would predict political and social upheavals as well as claim to reveal shocking truths liable to ruin the reputations of the rich and the powerful . According to Simei, Vimercate’s ultimate goal is to snake his way into the so-called salotto buono, a small circle of industrialists, politicians, and bankers controlling the economy of Italy. Vimercate will make sure that the dummy issues purporting to unmask the members of this clique will be seen by some of them, which will lead to his admission into their club in exchange for scrapping the dangerous newspaper. Without much hesitation, Colonna accepts Simei’s proposal and knuckles down to work in the Potemkin village that passes itself off as the editorial office of Domani.
From this point, we follow three major narrative threads: the daily work of the editorial staff (which allows Eco to lampoon the vices of contemporary journalism), the love story between Colonna and the only female editor of the newspaper called Maia, and the conspiracy theory developed by Bragadoccio, Colonna’s other colleague. The descriptions of heated discussions during editorial meetings sparkle with Swiftian satire, ridiculing the way newspapers and magazines distort facts and create sensations out of nothing. When briefing his subordinates on the modus operandi for breaking news, Simei explains the basic principles of manipulating the available information to achieve the desired effect on the reading public. A classical example is putting four disparate pieces of news with a common “theme” on the same page to create a fifth news item. At Simei’s request, Colonna lectures his colleagues on the techniques of writing a retraction as a response to an accusatory letter from a disgruntled reader condemning one of the newspaper’s articles as mendacious. Using the assassination of Julius Caesar as the subject matter of this imaginary correspondence, Colonna composes a retraction which instead of refuting the rogue article contrives to reaffirm its allegations. Once the general policy of the daily has been established, each staff member comes up with various topics for articles, most of which get discarded in the course of editorial meetings. Some of the rejected material includes: the negative influence of the environmental pollution on the size of the penis, the strange longevity of an unpopular pizzeria which might be used by mafia for money-laundering, the scams practised by numerous fake Maltese orders offering knighthood for a considerable remuneration. Maia who is tasked with preparing horoscopes, becomes increasingly upset with the policy of the editor-in-chief, as all her creative ideas are summarily dismissed without much consideration. She finds consolation in the affair with Colonna who persuades her to stay in the team despite Simei’s slights and the unscrupulous ambiance in the office of the newspaper. The love between Colonna and Maia, while being important for propelling the plot, is not the most successful element of the novel. Not that in his previous novels Eco has been especially good at describing romance. The Italian writer’s true might is manifested when it comes to re-visiting seminal historical events, drawing unexpected connections and exposing hidden conspiracies. That is why the most fascinating episodes of the novel are meetings between Colonna and Braggadocio in which the latter gradually entrusts his colleague with a complicated plot he has recently disclosed.
Braggadocio is a tragicomic figure whose name, despite sounding Italian, comes from an English word derived from the Italian-sounding name Bragadocchio coined by Edmund Spencer for a conceited character in Faerie Queene. Driven by compulsive mythomania and probably paranoia, Braggadocio comes up with an outlandish theory regarding the fate of the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini. The journalist is convinced that in 1945 it was Mussolini’s double who was executed, whereas the real dictator managed to escape unscathed to Argentina, a popular destination for many WWII criminals. He shares this discovery with Colonna, supporting his claim by presenting a number of well-known facts glazed with conspiracy-based interpretations. The most macabre evidence of Braggadocio’s theory is Mussolini’s autopsy report, which he extensively quotes and comments upon. As a matter of fact, this symbolic disinterment of Mussolini’s corpse marks a watershed in the novel, as the narrative becomes more morbid and grotesque, as if the violent and tragic past of Italy began to invade the present and infect it with its horrible diseases. Colonna lends a sympathetic ear to the delirious myth-making of Braggadocio, perfectly realising that the man must be bonkers.
Braggadocio’s paranoid vision acquires maximum complexity when the notorious operation Gladio enters the equation. To tell the truth, I had not known anything about Gladio before reading Umberto Eco’s new novel. There is a two-and-a-half hour BBC documentary about it, but I didn’t have the serendipity of stumbling upon it prior to the publication of Numero Zero. Gladio used to be a network of stay-behind paramilitary groups secretly formed in the territories of all Western countries after WWII. The primary function of these troops was to offer armed resistance behind the enemy lines if the Soviet Union invaded Western Europe. These shadow operatives recruited mostly from right-wing organisations were supervised by the American and British secret services. When the existence of Gladio was revealed after the Cold War, a series of investigations shocked the public by connecting the stay-behinds with terrorist acts against civilian population and functionaries within state institutions who allegedly had used the secret army to effect the so-called strategy of tension. The main goal of this strategy was to demonstrate to people the danger of the rising left and to induce them to ask the government for additional security.
One of the key scenes in the novel is Colonna’s and Braggadocio’s visit to the church San Bernardino alle Ossa. The conspiracy-seeking journalist has chosen its famous ossuary as the most appropriate place to tell Colonna about Gladio and its role in a number of violent and mysterious events. The bone-encrusted chapel of San Bernardino becomes a powerful symbol of Italian history. Not just a cupboard with a skeleton or two, but a vast chamber packed with bones and skulls: it will take more than one generation to sort out the multitude of shameful secrets hidden from the public by the powers that be.
Detail of the Ossuary Chapel in San Bernardino alle Ossa
The place was deserted save for a little old woman who was praying in a pew in the first row with her head between hands. Death’s heads squeezed into high recesses between pilasters, boxes of bones, skulls arranged in the shape of the cross set into a mosaic of whitish stones which also were bones, perhaps fragments of vertebral columns, articular joints, clavicles, sterna, scapulae, coccyges, carpi and metacarpi, patellae, tarsi, tali, who knows? Bone edifices rose everywhere leading the eye vertically to a Tiepolesque vault; luminous and cheerful, it was enveloped by pink and creamy clouds with angels and triumphant souls hovering in between. On the horizontal shelf above the old barred door skulls with gaping eye-sockets were aligned like porcelain jars in apothecary cabinets. In the recesses level with visitors, protected by a wide-mesh grille through which it was possible to slip fingers, the bones and skulls were polished and shiny like the feet of St. Peter’s statue in Rome through the centuries-old touch of either devout or necrophiliac hands. There were approximately a thousand skulls, at least, and as for smaller bones, it was impossible to count them; on the pilasters stood out monograms of Christ composed of tibia which seemed to have been removed from the Jolly Rogers of the Tortuga pirates.
“These are not only the bones of lepers”, Braggadocio told me as if there was nothing more beautiful in the world. “They are skeletons coming from other burials in the vicinity, especially the corpses of convicts, patients who died in the Brolo hospital, the beheaded, prisoners who died in jails, probably also thieves or brigands who came to die in the church because they didn’t have another place where they could bite the dust in peace — The Verziere was a quarter with awful reputation. This old woman makes me laugh: she is here to pray as though it was the sepulchre of a saint with holy relics, whereas these are remains of rogues, bandits, damned souls. And yet the old monks were more compassionate than the buriers and exhumers of Mussolini, just look at the care, at the love for art (and also the cynicism, who would deny it?) with which they arranged these skeletal remains as if they were Byzantine mosaics. The little old woman is seduced by these images of death, mistaking them for images of holiness; I won’t be able to show anymore where exactly, but beneath this altar it should be possible to see the half-mummified body of a girl who during the night of the dead, they say, comes out with other skeletons to perform her danse macabre.
Not unlike the monks of San Bernardino, Braggadocio creates a mosaic of great conspiracy, arranging facts, half-truths, speculations, and downright fantasies into an intricate pattern. I am not going to examine in detail this complex edifice populated by politicians, ecclesiastics, war criminals, terrorists, law-enforcement officers, mafiosi, Freemasons, and other noteworthy representatives of Italian society. Braggadocio thinks he has now enough material to publish it in twelve installments in all the twelve zero issues of Domani. We may find it rather amusing: a make-believe conspiracy to be revealed in a make-believe newspaper. However, a seasoned reader of Eco’s writing by now should have realised that a pandora’s box of real consequences is about to be opened, for quite often reality is far more unbelievable than any penny dreadful.
Zero Issue was supposed to be Eco’s fourth novel. He started writing it after The Island of the Day Before was published, but at some point he abandoned it and wrote Baudolino instead. In his collection of essays On Literature Umberto Eco reveals to us that one of the reasons he shelved Zero Issue was that its characters were too similar to the ones featured in Foucault’s Pendulum. No doubt about that. This slim novel could easily become one of the subplots of the Italian writer’s sprawling second book. Colonna cannot help but remind us of Casaubon, and the editorial staff working on the sensationalist newspaper immediately brings to mind the employees of the publishing houses Garamond and Manuzio, who, for their own amusement, concoct a plan of world domination. Nevertheless, there is a substantial difference between the two novels. The main message of Foucault’s Pendulum is an admonition against looking for connections where there are none. In case of Zero Issue, I would argue, this idea is less prominent, although it is obviously there; suffice it to look at the epigraph by E. M. Forster: “Only connect!” In his last novel, Eco wants to alert us to the fact how inured we have become to truly outrageous events through our overexposure to the media. The blasé consumer of news regards a disclosure which in another time and place would lead to mass riots and perhaps a revolution as just another sensation and forgets it the next day because there are always more to come.
Finally, if anyone would like to read up on the events mentioned in the novel while waiting for the English translation, here is a list of recommended literature:
Daniele, Ganser. NATO’s Secret Armies: Operation Gladio and Terrorism in Western Europe .
Dickie, John. Blood Brotherhoods: A History of Italy’s Three Mafias.
Foot, John. Milan since the Miracle.
Ginsborg, Paul. A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943-1988.
Hibberd, Matthew. The Media in Italy.
Hibbert, Christopher. Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce.
Luzzato, Sergio. The Body of Il Duce: Mussolini’s Corpse and the Fortunes of Italy.
Willan, Philip. Puppetmasters: The Political Use of Terrorism in Italy.