Saturday 24 August 2019

Books: Enjoyable novel by 'genius' author feels unfinished

Fiction: Numero Zero, Umberto Eco, Harvill Secker, hdbk, 191 pages, €22.50

Polymathic linguist: Italian author and academic Umberto Eco
Polymathic linguist: Italian author and academic Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

It's hard to evaluate where Umberto Eco stands as a novelist. The Italian is a genius, obviously - a brilliant, polymathic academic and linguist. His non-fiction is great: Serendipities, Search for the Perfect Language.

But the novels have been erratic. On one hand, Baudolino felt like three vaguely connected (and not great) novellas bolted together. The Name of the Rose, Eco's most famous book, was fantastic in parts, a trudge in others, and didn't hang together as a unified piece either.

On the other hand, Foucault's Pendulum is probably my favourite novel ever, which I reread regularly. "Literary thriller" probably describes it best, but that's a paltry term for such a monumental achievement.

A colossal, head-spinning phantasmagoria about history, philosophy, belief, ideology - and especially, the serpentine power and attraction of conspiracy theories - it's beautifully crafted and showcases Eco's preternatural erudition. (The pitch might be, "James Joyce rewrites The Da Vinci Code.")

Numero Zero, his seventh novel, can be seen as an echo of Foucault's Pendulum, a minor-chord refrain on that book's orchestral symphonies. It returns to the same place and themes: the world of conspiracy theories, a world which, like Byron, is mad, bad and dangerous to know (too much).

And, as with Foucault's Pendulum, Numero Zero is narrated by a cynical but fundamentally decent guy. Colonna is a few decades older than the earlier anti-hero Casaubon, but they're both failed students, now eking out a living in publishing, somewhat dissatisfied with life though not completely unhappy in their dissatisfaction.

Colonna, hack writer and translator, is asked by his friend Simei to help on a project: producing 12 trial-run issues of a possible new paper for a powerful magnate.

The unfortunately named Braggadocio, a paranoid workmate, is investigating a potentially explosive story: Mussolini wasn't killed at the end of WWII, it was a body-double and he lived in secret for decades afterwards, protected by the CIA, Vatican and various Italian political players.

Numero Zero is short, so I won't reveal too much plot: suffice to say, reality and theory become ever-closer intertwined, and Colonna - initially sceptical - begins to doubt what is true and what is imagination.

The narrative ends quite abruptly, and the entire book feels a little unfinished. But there's much to enjoy, especially Eco's very, very funny observations on media.

Us fine gentlemen of the press manipulate public opinion, are mercenary and venal, and toss clichés around like (ahem) confetti at a wedding? Don't believe a word of it. Nothing but the demented ramblings of tinfoil-hatted conspiranoiacs, I swear.

Darragh McManus's young adult novel Shiver the Whole Night Through is out now

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