Umberto Eco has published a new novel. According to my schema, Numero Zero has at least one thing going for it: it’s written in the first person. It’s also his shortest novel by far. The idea behind the book is intriguing enough that I could wish that it were longer, but I doubt that it would ever really have gotten where it is headed. Numero Zero reads like a sketch of an Eco novel that has been entirely taken over by a longwinded character.
Milan (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
The novel begins, like Foucault’s Pendulum, with a man in fear for his life. Then we find out why. In this case, the main character is a writer, a self described loser (and losers “always know much more than winners”) who seems to have caught a minor break when he lands a strange ghostwriting job. He must write a history of a newspaper which will never print its first issue. Though our hero is in on the ruse, there is small ensemble of journalists working on the paper who are not. One is Maia, a sympathetic woman with whom the narrator strikes up a relationship. Her strange conversational habits almost become a plot point, before unfortunately being dropped, as far as I can tell. Another is Braggadocio, whose name is explained by his grandfather’s being raised in an orphanage where bureaucrats handed out surnames at whim. He is the longwinded one, by means of whom a sort of plot is carelessly ladled into the book like soup into a small bowl.
Two of Eco’s three good novels, Foucault’s Pendulum and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana are more or less autobiographical. Now he has a trilogy. Loana revels in a boy’s view of Italy in WWII, partisans meeting pulp fiction. Foucault is the intellectual Italy of the sixties, where shrewd publishers meet at smoky, zinc topped bars. Finally we have Numero Zero, a nihilistic, slightly cracked satire of Italy corrupted by Berlusconi’s media, or some forerunner thereof. It’s too bad I never managed to read more of Eco’s Hot Wars and Media Populism. The conversations of these unfortunate hacks, and their cynical conclusions on the irrelevance of journalism are interesting enough that I may reread some of them. But Numero Zero hardly feels like a complete novel.
Last year I read William L. Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Eleven hundred pages and not one blog post! But what could I really say? I haven’t read widely enough on WWII to evaluate Shirer’s work, his accuracy, his objectivity, and so forth. I guess I can say that I was glad to have put the time in with such a book, if only for the sake of putting some sustained thought into the matter. Just how did such a disaster happen? Shirer doesn’t try to provide an easy answer.
Now I’m reading Shirer’s Berlin Diary. This work claims to be the diary that he kept, beginning 1934 when he was again taking up his work as a foreign correspondent after a year’s sabbatical. It’s hard to put down. Shirer was in the middle of everything: He covered Nazi rallies and got close enough to Hitler that he reflected on how easy it would have been to assassinate him. He was in Vienna at the time of the annexation and in Prague just before the Munich conference, wondering how he might come by a gas mask.
It was the right place to be for someone in his line of work, though. After getting downsized by his wire service (there seem to have been quite a few then) he happened to fall in with Edward R. Murrow and CBS, seemingly just as regular trans-Atlantic news broadcasts were beginning. There’s an amazing description of them being given a couple of hours to try to pull together a roundup from all over Europe. Shirer had to place phone calls to his journalist friends in Rome, Vienna, Berlin, and at the same time to engineers to figure out who had access to short wave transmitters. Then his bosses in New York told him when to start each piece, and he told them what wavelength to listen on.
Of course this invites comparison between the news in Shirer’s day and in our own, when by all accounts this kind of journalism is disappearing. I don’t know. At one point, Shirer questions whether his reporting is making any difference at all. It must have been particularly disheartening to find that, after moving the heavens to bring the news to England and America, visitors from abroad to Germany never seemed to want to see what Shirer saw. His work issues a tremendous challenge never to be complacent about the information at our disposal.