Monday, November 2, 2015

Umberto Eco's Dark Roman Holiday

Umberto Eco, Numero Zero

Many moons ago, I encountered the writerly advice: “This story ends where it should begin.” I resolved never to give such advice, because it sounded like crap. Then I took first-semester undergraduate creative writing, and learned its meaning. Writers sometimes invest noble efforts into scene-setting, exposition, and character notes, but forget the actual story. So it’s legitimate criticism. I just never thought I’d say it to Umberto Eco.

Back in 1992, when newspapers still mattered, a shyster editor hires a washed-up old hack to ghost-write his memoir of a new start-up tabloid. The trick: it’s a dummy paper. Every issue will be numbered Zero, because this newspaper isn’t intended for public elucidation. The paper’s primary backer wants to threaten society’s upper echelons by promising to reveal their darkest, sloppiest secrets. Basically, he invents doxxing a full decade early.

This reads less like a novel, more like the preparatory background notes an author makes for something they expect to write later. I don’t mean that metaphorically. Eco includes lengthy discursive monologues, many sprawling over multiple chapters, describing ideas that should occur through action or dialogue. Characters exist, not to do anything or develop across scenes, but to voice respective viewpoints about our media-saturated society.

Our first-person hack narrator, Colonna, gives the fake journalists lectures on how to prevaricate and evade with words. The writers’ pen includes the slimy editor, the cynical veteran, the the spy for the opposition, and the misplaced, vaguely antiquated voice of journalistic ethics. Oh, and the one obligatory “chick writer” who aspires to journalistic legitimacy, but gets fobbed off with celebrity news and horoscopes. (Spoiler: she puts out.)

Umberto Eco
And it includes the drunk who spouts conspiracy theories. One-third of the way through, this guy finally divulges the subplot that eventually drives the novel’s back half: he knows Benito Mussolini’s real ultimate fate. We thought he died in a hail of partisan gunfire after the Allies took Rome. But Braggadocio (seriously, that’s his name) has proof—proof, I tell you—that Il Duce got the Eichmann treatment in Argentina.

Umberto Eco loves conspiracies. His best novels, including The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, feature characters unlocking the gulf between symbolic reality, and the underlying truth concealed behind language and metaphor. His best characters take stands against mere comforting illusion. A trailblazer in semiotics, Eco’s novels generally represent ways humans make meaning through communication, sometimes despite reality’s nihilistic tendency to deny humans any valid significance.

Admittedly, Braggadocio’s theory has remarkable potential. It involves not only Mussolini’s (purported) death, but the hush-hush Vatican machinations, the death of Aldo Moro, CIA back-channels covertly funding the Red Brigades, and multiple failed coups in postwar Italian history. Braggadocio makes 9/11 Truthers look unambitious and shy. Eco could’ve built this into an intriguing premise for a more complicated novel, if he’d gone beyond mere idea.

But story-wise, this novel marches in place. The characters don’t do anything, and interact only sporadically; they just discourse at one another, sometimes in paragraphs that run over two pages. In particular, the characters don’t change. They exist to represent viewpoints in public debates. Though Colonna himself briefly engages in liquor-fueled existential despair toward the final pages, he ultimately, like everyone else, finishes mostly where he started.

Eco dips briefly into important events. The paper’s venal financial backer, Commendatore Vimercate, uncannily resembles media magnate turned politician Silvio Berlusconi. Editor Simei’s flip dismissal of cell phones and computers as meaningful lifestyle trends (remember, this is 1992) grimly hints why many Italian, and international, newspapers looked simply out-of-touch after the Millennium. Eco cuttingly satirizes the devolution of journalism into celebrity exposés, reprinting official press releases, and ad hominem mudslinging.

Then in the final pages, Spoiler Alert, he does nothing with it. Braggadocio dies violently, Colonna assumes it was to prevent publication of his theories, but offers no particular proof. Colonna flees town, waiting the assassin’s bullet. Then he turns on the TV and sees Allan Francovich’s BBC documentary detailing virtually everything Eco spent an entire book spelling out. Wait, did Eco actually write anything new, or just paraphrase Francovich?

Basically, Eco creates an idea, but rather than put anything in motion, he just stops. Boom, done. I expect better from a writer of Eco’s caliber. His past novels are talky, admittedly, but something actually happens; characters change; situations develop. This, well, he creates an opportunity for something to happen, then he does nothing with it. It’s a squandered chance, the epitome of “This story ends where it should begin.”

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