Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
Harvill Secker. First published 2015
After 'Foucault's Pendulum' and 'The Prague Cemetery', this is the third of Umberto Eco's novels that deals with a deep, imaginary but widely believed conspiracy. The writing is far more lighthearted than the other two. Eco always writes with a mischievous sense of humour, spinning wild stories with a straight face, and making connections between virtually all events of importance. In this book, he is explicit about that, going so far as to choose E.M. Forster's words 'Only connect!' for the epigraph. And then proceeds to connect up current Italian politics with, first, the possibly faked death of Mussolini, and then with his possibly real death.
The framing device is also a conspiracy. It introduces a media magnate - probably a Silvio Berlusconi surrogate - who wishes to publish a fake paper in order to scare and blackmail various celebrities, most of whom would have something to hide. He finances a small team of failed journalists to put together twelve issues of a paper with fake news. These first set of issues would be, he says, a model, and they would contain made-up news, based on events of the previous years. Thus they would be numbered issue 1 volume 0, issue 2 volume 0, and so on, leading to the title of the book. In describing the editorial conferences, Eco clearly savages actual modern day media practices, and not only of outlets like Fox News or Times Now.
One of the team, slightly less cynical than the others, comes with the story of Mussolini's faked death. He says the dictator was not shot in 1945, as is officially held, but escaped to Argentina. He connects this episode with secretive fascist factions in many respectable institutions, even the Vatican. He builds a convincing narrative of these groups biding their time, building up their strength, and finally attempting a fascist coup in Italy to restore the dictatorship of 'Il Duce' (who is all while hidden in Argentine), only to be thwarted in their attempts by his sudden and importune actual death. He plans to investigate and gather evidence for his story, only to be murdered in mysterious circumstances. At this the rest of the team panics, and goes into hiding from the conspirators. At the end of the story, the narrator, who is one of failed journalists, starts to believe that in fact there is and was no conspiracy, and his fears are products of his own mind to connect up and try to find a common explanation for random coincidences.
The book is funny, but not farcical. It can be, and is probably meant to be read as a serious but cynical indictment of the state of affairs in the media and politics, especially in Italy. Of course, with some essentially cosmetic changes of name, place and time, the stories would fit India, the US, and perhaps other countries as well. The book, in any case, is a brief, but accurate representation of the zeitgeist around the world. Umberto Eco includes as part of the conspiracy the possible murder of Pope John Paul I after only a month in office. He hints that this happened to save some of the officials of the Vatican Bank from having their embezzlement of the bank money exposed. The exact same theme connected to the Pope's death also occurs in the movie 'The Godfather Part III'.