Numero Zero by Umberto Eco, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 208 pages, $24. It was entirely predictable that when the deaths of 89-year-old Harper Lee and 84-year-old Umberto Eco were publicly reported within hours of each other, Lee would be the subject of near-universal American mourning, not Eco. “To Kill a Mockingbird,” after all, is a literary rite of youth in America, a book that one reads at an age when one is being taught what literature is.
No two writers could have been more different than Lee and Eco. Lee’s reputation was based entirely on one book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” even though another earlier one was yanked out of a safe deposit box into publication just before her death. Eco’s big, best-selling novel “The Name of the Rose” was only the tip of a literary iceberg in his life. Eco wrote mammoth novels people bought to be confused by (“Foucault’s Pendulum”), smaller novels of dazzling sophistication and essays and journalism that often juggled his intellectual identities with exhibitionistic panache (his publisher lists “philosopher, medievalist, semiologist and longtime professor at the University of Bologna”).
“Numero Zero” is his sixth novel since “The Name of the Rose.” It’s about an all-purpose literary and journalistic hack named Colonna (it means “column” in Italian) whose years of acute inconsequence have led him to observe that “losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners. The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong.” He is now knee-deep in journalistic malfeasance (think National Enquirer and Marcello Mastroianni’s character in “La Dolce Vita”) and conspiracy, real and theoretical, where the present is reported as the future because it is the past. It’s about Berlusconi’s ’90s Italy but Trump’s America seems a relative. “The only serious concern for decent citizens is how to avoid taxes and those in charge can do what they like,” writes Eco. “They always have their snouts in the same trough.” In Eco’s tale, Mussolini’s “survival” becomes troublesome in modern Italy, after its “discovery” by a fellow named Braggadoccio. Eco in his final novel is a better satirist of journalism and politics than anyone operating in America right now, it seems. – Jeff Simon