sábado, 29 de outubro de 2016

Umberto Eco’s ‘Numero Zero’ By TOM RACHMAN



Umberto Eco’s ‘Numero Zero’

By TOM RACHMAN



THE NEW YORK TIMES, NOV. 20, 2015

Umberto Eco’s early novels gained a reputation as intellectual entertainments, dense with esoterica and dotted with Latin, of a heft you’d rather not drop on your toe. By contrast, his new conspiracy thriller is a fleet volume, slim in pages but plump in satire about modern Italy.
This witty and wry novel — Eco’s sixth since his best-selling fiction debut, “The Name of the Rose” — also contains a few flimsy elements and peculiar digressions. Still, it’s hard not to be charmed by the zest of the author. I imagine the gray-bearded 83-year-old professor chortling away as he typed in some book-lined sanctuary. (Eco boasts 30,000 volumes at his Milan apartment, 20,000 more at a country home outside Urbino.)
The narrator of “Numero Zero” is a 50-ish sad sack, Colonna, who dropped out of college and has flitted from job to job: tutor, hack journalist, proofreader, copy editor, slush-pile reader, even ghostwriter of detective fiction for a pseudonymous author — that is, he’s too unimportant even to be the real fake. Lately, he works in Milan at a start-up newspaper that is preparing dummy issues, chiefly with the intent of blackmailing the powerful. When a muckraking colleague claims to have unearthed a political conspiracy, all goes awry. So what’s the dynamite scoop?
Eco reveals it, but not in a hurry. First, he savors his fiasco of a newspaper — the kind that hears of a weeping Madonna statue and orders a banner headline. The unscrupulous editor in chief, Simei, informs his staff that their target audience is nitwits. Crossword clues must be no more challenging than “The husband of Eve.”
The publication is named Domani for its intent to stay aloof to daily news in favor of tomorrow’s stories. But soothsaying — tricky enough for paid psychics, and in especially short supply among the punditocracy — is simpler if you already know what will happen. So, Simei has the inspired idea of backdating the mock-ups, permitting the journalists to fill their articles with ex post facto insights.
The setting for these inky shenanigans is 1992, when the Clean Hands scandal broke, revealing a system of kickbacks that implicated much of the Italian establishment. Political parties collapsed, thousands of people were arrested and a few committed suicide. From the chaos emerged a wealthy Milanese entrepreneur, Silvio Berlusconi, who formed his own party the next year and was elected prime minister in 1994, proclaiming himself savior of a vitiated nation.
The novel never mentions him by name. However, the owner of Domani is described as an ambitious businessman known by his honorific, Il Commendatore, who aims to leverage media power into access to the upper echelons. (Opponents of Berlusconi, who is commonly known by his title, Il Cavaliere, have long accused him of applying his vast media holdings to political ends.)
As scandal grips the nation, Colonna is occupied with the scoop of his seedy colleague Braggadocio, who claims that Mussolini was not killed by partisans in 1945 but survived in hiding, and that the dictator’s fate was linked to extremist political violence in postwar Italy. In a crescendo of conspiratorial thinking, Braggadocio links a series of notorious crimes and alleged plots, each still debated in Italy: the Piazza Fontana bombing, the murder of Aldo Moro, the sudden death of Pope John Paul I, the Vatican banking scandal, the P2 Masonic lodge, the shooting of Pope John Paul II.
Conspiracies — many faked, some veritable — have long enthralled Eco, from “The Name of the Rose” (1980), set in a medieval abbey where monks keep getting bumped off; to “Foucault’s Pendulum” (1988), about three book editors who invent a conspiracy theory that gets out of control; to his previous novel, “The Prague Cemetery” (2010), a portrait of a 19th-century malefactor who creates a notorious anti-Semitic forgery.
Eco’s predilection for cryptic truths traces back to his other career as a distinguished professor of semiotics, a branch of humanities whose practitioners are cursed to spend their lives explaining to strangers what they do. A central aim of the field is the deconstruction of human communications, reckoning with the unspoken codes and signification around us, from advertising to eating to the movies. Meanings are hidden everywhere, they argue — a view not far from that of the conspiracy theorist. Which is not to equate scholars with cranks. Only to note that Eco is professionally attuned to clandestine meanings, and to the risk of overinterpretation.
Another cause of Eco’s conspiratorial bent, I suspect, is Italy itself, where politicos have indulged in skulduggery since long before Machiavelli. Where conspiracies really do exist, is one nuts to expect them? When I arrived as a journalist in Italy a decade after Clean Hands, I was startled to discover that some people considered the villains of that scandal not the prosecuted but the prosecutors. Berlusconi himself routinely referred to the judiciary as flush with Reds plotting against conservatives like himself.
In the most stable of countries, scandals lead to disgrace, contrition (sincere or not) and resignations. In Italy, scandals are where history bifurcates, with parallel lines of explanation never to meet, disputed guilt, no crashing end and little regeneration as a result.
“Numero Zero” suggests that the interminable Italian political arguments over responsibility and blame trace back to World War II. “The shadow of Mussolini, who is taken for dead, wholly dominates Italian events from 1945 until, I’d say, now,” Braggadocio remarks. Of course, he’s a paranoiac. But is he wrong? Still today, Fascist and Communist graffiti blights walls across Italy, and Rome retains a prominent obelisk chiseled with the name of Il Duce. Imagine a Nazi-era tribute to Hitler in central Berlin today — it’s inconceivable. But in the Italian political opera, there are few finales, just encores nobody asked for.
Bogus or not, Braggadocio’s conspiracy theorizing leads to blood, which is perhaps Eco’s point: Fantastic claims have real costs. When Colonna feels imperiled, he takes to the arms of his young love interest, Maia. And she — previously a character more quirky than plausible — gains full voice, railing against the chicanery everywhere. “The only serious concern for decent citizens is how to avoid paying taxes, and those in charge can do what they like — they always have their snouts in the same trough.” She proposes running away to an even more corrupt country, where the venality will at least be in the open.
Colonna retorts that there’s no need to venture far. “You’re forgetting, my love, that Italy is slowly turning into one of those havens you want to banish yourself to,” he says. “All we have to do is wait: Once this country of ours has finally joined the third world, the living will be easy.”
Remember, this is 1992, when dirty hands were exposed and cleaner hands were to follow; all those perp walks and prison terms presaged a better domani. Enter stage right a dapper gent with a few trillion lire in his pocket and a satisfied grin on his chops. Berlusconi dominated Italian politics from 1994 until 2011, serving as prime minister three times. The Italy that he was to rescue is today one of dejection, unemployment, cynicism. Wanting to laugh, the impish Eco — along with many of his compatriots — is inclined to sigh at the state of his nation.
NUMERO ZERO
By Umberto Eco
Translated by Richard Dixon
191 pp. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $24.

Tom Rachman is the author of two novels, “The Imperfectionists” and “The Rise and Fall of Great Powers.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/books/review/umberto-ecos-numero-zero.html?&moduleDetail=section-news-
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