Mussolini's Pendulum: Numero Zero by Umberto Eco

on Monday, November 2, 2015
Stop the presses! A new Eco? How did I not even know about this? And.. wait for it... a mere 190 pages. Where are the other 500? Someone has given the space/time continuum an unceremonious shove. Could it be that the master of the cerebral literary thriller has gone off on a lesser folly?

Colonna, a washed up journo, is approached to write a memoir about a newspaper that has never actually gone to press. Part of his brief is to assemble a group of similar hacks to 'publish' twelve editions of the paper as an example of what it once was. The main aim, so far as Colonna can tell, is to help the commissioning benefactor get a leg up in the higher echelons of Italian society through what amounts to blackmail. At first, Numero Zero seems a trite commentary on the nature of contemporary journalism. Set at the dawn of the information age, but written with hindsight, it is perfectly posited to take well-aimed pot shots. Alas, what we get instead are cheap gags, lame puns and completely obvious 'revelations'. Evelyn Waugh this is not. Then, about half way through, Eco finds his feet and remembers, thank god, that he is (to borrow from Samuel L. Jackson) Umberto Fucking Eco. The master. One of the lowly hacks Colonna has hired comes to him with a conspiracy to end all conspiracies (at least in Italian terms): Mussolini survived the war and was kept hidden in anticipation of his return to power. Backed by a bunch of pro-Fascist movements across Europe - the Stay Behind gangs - and centred around the Italian incarnation Gladio, the plot was furthered by all kinds of dastardly undertakings. The kidnapping and murder of Aldo Moro? That was them. The mysterious death of Pope John Paul I? Yup, them too. The bombing at Piazza Fontana? You get the point. The only thing that stopped the whole thing coming to fruition was the rather inconvenient natural death of Mussolini. They had waited too long to make their move.

Snatching at a grab bag of historical moments, Eco deftly weaves a meta conspiracy that is so much fun it is hard not to buy in. Admittedly, I'm a sucker for 'what if' novels and while Numero Zero is no Fatherland, it still possesses the creative attention to manufactured detail that I adore. It also leans heavily on a book I loved as a kid - In God's Name - David Yallop's riveting investigation into the Vatican bank and its possible role in the murder of the first John Paul. Eco explicitly uses the book's findings as an evidentiary tether, citing Yallop as authority for many of his more ludicrous but wonderful assertions. The whole thing is a blast and Eco rounds it off, in true style, with a murder. The hack journo is silenced and the entire project is shut down. That might have been the end of it, except Eco is determined to make one last point about journalism in the information age. There are, he suggests, no new stories under the sun. Sure, there might be offcuts around the frayed edges but the idea of the exclusive keeper of information has been obliterated. It's a point well made in an enjoyable, if rather slight, work by a true master in his twilight years.


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