By: Kelly Velazquez
Translation: C. Brayton
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[Number Zero], the latest novel by Italian writer Umberto Eco, is set in 1992 and tells the story of a newspaper created to defame.
The famed Italian essayist and novelist Umberto Eco launched a new novel in Italy this week, Number Zero, a kind of manual of bad journalism set in the newsroom of an imaginary newspaper.
The latest from the influential Italian intellectual … is a work of fiction set in 1992, a notable year in contemporary Italian history, marked by corruption scandals and the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) case, which brought down a significant portion of the political class at the time.
Above all, the book focuses on the unsolved mysteries that shook Italy during those times, among them the case involving the Masonic lodge Propaganda 2, lead by the fearsome Licio Gelli, who wanted to execute a “[bloodless coup].” “This is the first novel in which Eco deals with such recent history,” says Elisabetta Sgarbi, publisher of the Bompiani publishing house.
Eco describes the newsroom of an imaginary newspaper, created in 1992 in order to misinform, defame adversaries, blackmail, manipulate, and compile dossiers and secret documentation. “To me, it reads like a manual of mass communication for our times,” says Roberto Saviano, a renowned Italian antimafia journalist, who lives with a security escort because of the death threats he has received from criminal organizations.
In a conversation between Eco and Saviano published in L’Espresso magazine, the semiologist says he did not set out to write a “treatise on journalism,” but to tell a story about the limits of information, about how a libel machine works, and not so much about the job of informing the public. “I selected the worst case scenario. I wanted the reader to come away with a grotesque image in mind, given that the use of a machine to spread rumours and insinuations was also used during the Inquisition,” commented Eco.
Saviano, who says that the social networks multiply this form of denigration, creating real monsters, believes that communications magnate and former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi marked the beginning of that era, purveying rumors and gossip about the lives and vices of persons both public and private.”I chose 1992 because I believe that year represents the moment of a historic decline in Italian society,” Eco said in an interview with Corriere della Sera.
In the book, the semiologist enjoys quoting common stock sayings and phrases, such “in the eye of the hurricane” or “up to his neck in it.” “You don’t need to strangle your grandmother to lose your credibility. It is enough to report that the judge wore orange socks. And why is that?” Eco said, citing a real case during a long interview with RAI.
Due to the delirium of a paranoid editor, Eco’s narrator relates concrete facts which are, however, reconstructed based on bizarre theories or which dovetail in some odd way with other cases, in the end creating a third case.
Such is the case of the Masonic Temple P2, supposed assassin of Luciani (João Paulo I), with its accomplices among the Red Brigades who worked for the secret services, the tentacles of the CIA, … and even the story of the false cadaver of Benito Mussolini by means of which he was saved and shipped off to Argentina. All of these are told in a way that leaves the reader unsure of whether they are inventions or a description of reality, Eco says.
This is Eco’s seventh novel, along with The Prague Cemetery, Foucault’s Pendulum, and others.
Review by the Untranslated
Here goes the main publishing event of 2015. Those who follow the various titbits around the Italian writer’s literary output might remember that after finishing The Island of the Day Before, Umberto Eco began writing a novel about a group of journalists who start a daily newspaper. In search of popularity and influence, the editors of the rag concoct false sensations not unlike the bored intellectuals from Foucault’s Pendulum who spawn a monstrous fictional plan of the world domination. After two years of work, Eco abandoned the novel to write Baudolino, which also dealt with lies, mythmaking and forgeries, albeit in the medieval setting.
As it turns out, Eco did manage to finish Numero Zero, and it is going to be published by Bompiani this January. Although the main setting of the novel is Milan in 1992, the book will also touch upon the mysteries and tragedies of the 1970s: the clandestine NATO operation Gladio, the notorious Masonic lodge Propaganda Due, the failed neo-fascist coup Golpe Borghese, the terror of Red Brigades, and the death of Pope John Paul I. On top of that, Eco’s new book will tell about “corrupt secret services, massacres and red herrings” as well as “a shocking plan”. The novel will be presented at the Frankfurt Book Fair with the English title That’s the Press, Baby..., referring to the famous last words of Humphrey Bogart’s character in Deadline – U.S.A. I do hope it will be eventually changed into a different one.
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