My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Humberto Eco's latest is more novella than novel at only 208 pages. I read it in translation, of course, and found it to be a quick and easy read, quite a change from some of the other Eco books I've read, such as The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, and The Prague Cemetery. Even though it is slimmer and perhaps more accessible than those other books, Numero Zero is full of Eco's trademark love of conspiracies and of afflicting the powerful. It is a satire on the politics of modern Italy and it seems to me that the author is having great fun in its telling. I sort of imagine him chuckling away to himself as he sits at his word processor, getting it all on the record and tweaking the language to make it just a bit more acerbic.
The time is 1992. It's the Berlusconi era in Italy. A recent scandal revealed a labyrinthine system of kickbacks and payoffs that went straight to the center of power in the Italian government and religious bureaucracy. Powerful political parties were brought low. The government collapsed and out of all that chaos Silvio Berlusconi emerged.
Berlusconi was a Milanese entrepreneur with ambitions to create his own empire. A couple of years later he would be elected prime minister and would be a presence in Italian politics for years to come. But in 1992, he was still building his empire.
Eco's book never mentions Berlusconi, but the eminence grise, the hidden power in his tale is an ambitious businessman known as "Il Commendatore." Berlusconi was known by the honorific "Il Cavaliere." Coincidence? Nothing is coincidental in an Eco work!
Il Commendatore is starting up a newspaper, staffed by mostly hack journalists, who are busily preparing dummy issues. In fact, the main purpose of this newspaper will be to supply stories with which to blackmail the powerful.
Eco has great fun with the sorry state of modern journalism, both print and television, as well as the state of politics in Italy. In his world of conspiracies within conspiracies, it's actually all a part of the same picture.
I do enjoy Eco's writing, even if I'm not always smart enough or well-informed enough to figure out exactly who or what he is skewering. I love the marvelous word play and the combustible mixture of political corruption, love, conspiracy theories, the Mafia, and, yes, even murder.
In this book, he gives us a conspiracy that reaches all the way back to World War II and Mussolini. It is strictly a minor work by a master but it is certainly worth the couple of hours it takes to read for those of us who are Eco fans.
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