“Numero Zero” by Umberto Eco

NumeroZero

As a result of the recent passing of Umberto Eco, I decided to bump this book up on my reading list. It is his most recent book, and sadly, his last one. It’s a short novel and fairly easy to read—not nearly as challenging as some of his other books. Still, it is classic Eco, steeped in conspiracy and social commentary, with ample references to history and literature.

This is a story about a newspaper in Milan that stumbles upon a conspiracy that may connect Mussolini with the Vatican, and suggests that Mussolini’s death was fake. There are lots of references that probably would have meant more to me if I was better versed in Italian history, but that did not detract from the book in any way. There is one criticism about this book, though, which I should probably get out of the way first. Personally, I thought the translation was very weak. It almost seemed like someone plugged the text into Google Translate which then spit out a translation void of nuance. This is especially noticeable in the dialog. All the language is flat and it is almost impossible to discern one character from another.

“But it’s like calling John XXIII the Good Pope. This presupposes the popes before him were bad.”

“Maybe that’s what people actually thought, otherwise he wouldn’t have been called good. Have you seen a photo of Pius XII? In a James Bond movie he’d have been the head of SPECTRE.”

“But it was the newspapers that called John XXIII the Good Pope, and the people followed suit.”

“That’s right. Newspapers teach people how to think,” Simei said.

“But do newspapers follow trends or create trends?”

(p. 83)

So in the previous excerpt, there are actually three people taking part in the dialog, but it is virtually impossible to tell one from another based upon the tone of the person speaking. I suspect in the original Italian, there was more nuance in the voices, but I cannot be certain about that. Anyway, now I can talk about what I liked.

This book’s strength is its critique against the news media. I’ve read essays by Eco where he addresses problems with news media, but here he presents his ideas creatively through fiction.

One of the ideas that Eco puts forth in this book is that news organizations actually create the news.

It’s not the news that makes the newspaper, but the newspaper that makes the news.

(p. 49)

This is true. The newspapers and news stations decide what is news and what is not. They decide what information is disseminated to the populace, and often these decisions are influenced by political agendas and advertising. In addition to the news media deciding what is “news,” there is another issue that impedes one’s ability to find important and unbiased news, and that is the fact that in the digital age, news is buried and hidden within a “sea of information.”

The point is that newspapers are not there for spreading the news but for covering it up. X happens, you have to report it, but it causes embarrassment for too many people, so in the same edition you add some shock headlines—mother kills four children, savings at risk of going up in smoke, letter from Garibaldi insulting his lieutenant Nino Bixio discovered, etc.—so news drowns in a great sea of information.

(pp. 140 – 141)

This passage makes me think a lot about FOX News and their scrolling ticker across the bottom of the screen. On a regular basis, the word ALERT! in red appears and pulls your eyes toward the ticker, distracting you from whatever is being discussed in the report. I cannot help but wonder if the timing of the alerts is orchestrated. As an experiment, I think I will watch closely and note what is being discussed each time an alert flashes at the bottom of the screen.

While this was not my favorite Eco book, I am still glad I read it and it is certainly worth reading, in spite of the translation issues. It’s a quick read and as with everything that Eco wrote, it is impossible to read this book and not come away a wiser person for doing so.

Cheers, and keep on reading!

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