In 1982 Roger Straus, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, couldn’t decide between two manuscripts by Italian writers, proclaiming, in his typically tactful way, “Come on, how many Wops can I publish?” So he deferred, as he often did, to Susan Sontag. The first manuscript was The Day of Judgment by Salvatore Satta, a ponderous, meditative novel filled with lengthy reflections and philosophical lyricism but nary a plot. The other book was Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a meta-narrative/detective noir/historical novel hybrid that was fast-paced and intricate, heady and riveting. Eco’s novel contained tons of Latin and the plot’s many gears involved Biblical analysis and semiotics. Sontag chose The Day of Judgment, and so did FSG.
The Name of the Rose, of course, went on to sell over 50 million copies worldwide and established Eco’s career. (The Day of Judgment, by the way, sold around two thousand copies.) But it is not for this easy irony that I tell this story. Rather, Sontag’s preference for Salvatore Satta’s novel reflects the way some parts of the literary world view Eco’s work. In relating this story in Hothouse, a fascinating and exuberantly written history of FSG, Boris Kachka refers to The Name of the Rose as merely the “highbrow progenitor to Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code” that was emphatically not an “FSG book.” When Eco’s follow-up novel Foucault’s Pendulum arrived in 1989, Salman Rushdie panned it, writing, among other things, “This Pendulum is the pits,” and, “This is Spielbergery without the action or bullwhips,” and, finally, “Reader: I hated it.” Moreover, Eco didn’t write another legitimately successful novel until 2011’s The Prague Cemetery.
Eco, though, is well regarded for his nonfiction, of which he’s written far more than fiction. As an academic, Eco had been publishing scholarly work since the late ’50s, and it was his studies in medieval aesthetics and semiotics that led him to write The Name of the Rose. In fact, it has informed all of his fictions, as they all tend to resemble, in some way, a scholar’s mystery. The prologue of The Name of the Rose, titled “Naturally, a Manuscript,” begins with the discovery of a journal of which the rest of the novel consists, thereby elevating the first-person narration to documentary verisimilitude. In The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the protagonist is a bookseller who loses all his memories with the exception of every book he’s ever read—he must reconstruct his identity through literature, which is about as good a metaphor for the life of a scholar as you’re going to get.
His latest novel, Numero Zero—which, like that of numerous other aging male novelists, is a slim volume—involves the creation of a daily newspaper that is never meant to launch but instead will be used as leverage for the wealthy business mogul who’s funding the venture. Colonna, a hack journalist and our narrator, is assigned by the would-be editor in chief Simei to write a book about the failed endeavor. It’s 1992, and the editor envisions their paper, Domani (“Tomorrow”), to not merely cover yesterday’s events but to predict “what might happen tomorrow.”
He asks his tiny staff to create faux issues from the previous year—zero issues. “In that case,” he explains, “we already know what will fall, but we’ll be talking as though the reader doesn’t yet know.” These editorial meetings have some satirical bite to them, as they effectively parody Italy’s news culture in which bribes and allegiances determined what was recorded. These mock-ups will be presented to their proprietor, the mysterious Commendatore, for his approval. The editor concludes, “We have to say to our owner: this is how Domani would have been had it appeared yesterday.”
You can see the fun Eco’s having here temporality-wise, too. A novel set in the past has characters writing about the past as if it were the present. The paper’s name, Domani, and its impossibly confusing implications (“today’s Tomorrow reports on yesterday,” and so forth), is a key to what’s going on here. The newspaper’s enterprise is nothing less than rewriting the past with the knowledge of the present (or the past’s future?) and pretending like they already knew it. This idea is extended through the figure of Braggadocio (Eco isn’t as good with aptronymic monikers as, say, Pynchon), a conspiracy theorist about as one-note as his name, who tells Colonna about his elaborate investigation into the death of Mussolini at Lake Como in 1945. Braggadocio claims the real Mussolini died and that a double was killed in his place. His narrative is stuffed full of names and details, recalling one of Rushdie’s complaints about Foucault’s Pendulum, that its momentum labored under “page after page of Higher Bullshit.” Rushdie then provides a proper-noun-laden sample from that novel, but here’s one from Numero Zero:
In France it had been known for some time that the infamous OAS had been created with members of the French stay-behind, but after a failed coup in Algiers, General de Gaulle had brought dissidents back under control. In Germany, it was common knowledge that the Oktoberfest bomb in Munich in 1980 was made with explosives that came from a German stay-behind depot; in Greece, it was the stay-behind army, the Lochos Oreinon Katadromon, that kicked off the military coup, and in Portugal, a mysterious Aginter Press was behind the assassination of Eduardo Mondlane, leader of the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique.
Or take this excerpt (and I do mean excerpt) of one of the other journalists explaining a potential story about “various fake orders of Malta”:
I then find a Byzantine protectorate, created by Prince Carol of Romania, who had broken away from Cassagnac’s order; a Grand Priory of which a certain Tonna-Barthet is the Grand Bailiff, while Prince Andrew of Yugoslavia—former Grand Master of the order founded by Peter II—is Grand Master of the Priory of Russia (which would then become Grand Royal Priory of Malta and of Europe). There’s even an order created in the 1970s by a Baron de Choibert and by Vittorio Busa, otherwise known as Viktor Timur II, Metropolitan Orthodox Archbishop of Bialystok, Patriarch of the Western and Eastern Diaspora, President of the Democratic Republic of Byelorussia and Gran Khan of Tartary and Mongolia.
And so on. Both of these passages are supposed to be dialogue, as in words spoken by a human being, but of course they sound more like an academic dissertation than a person with a heart. And most of Numero Zero is made up of conversations, so there’s also a fair amount of clunky, wooden exchanges. There’s a romantic subplot involving Colonna and Maia, a woman also from the newspaper, but the dialogue’s ineptitude renders any emotional resonance DOA (e.g., “Look at me, Maia, see me as I am,” and, “But I’m old enough to be your father”).
Still, this being Eco, there are, like the puzzling nature of time in relation to news and history, enough ideas bouncing around to move the reader through. But I can’t help think that Numero Zero is a leftover from The Prague Cemetery, Eco’s previous novel, which also dealt with fakery in major European events. That novel, though plagued with the same problems with dialogue and exposition, had heft to it, had verve in its imaginative momentum, and it built up to something rich and spirited. His latest, however, fails to reach past its own scholarly foundations into the realm of evocation and inventiveness. Better luck tomorrow.
Jonathan Russell Clark is a literary critic. He is a staff writer for Literary Hub and a regular contributor to The Georgia Review and The Millions. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Tin House, The Atlantic, LA Review of Books, The Rumpus, Chautauqua, PANK, and numerous others. For more, visit jonathanrussellclark.com or follow him @jrc2666.