When I was preparing to write this review, I realized that I needed a really good metaphor to describe what it feels like to read a work of social satire from a culture one doesn’t know well. The closest I could find was “like Balki Bartokomous reading Don DeLillo,” and while I relish any opportunity to write about Balki Bartokomous on the internet, even this simile falls short of capturing my bewilderment.
I mean, I’ve been to Italy. In fact, with the exception of the United States, Italy is the country in which I’ve spent the most time. The Latin classes I took in high school covered at least as much history as language, and I can Augustus-Tiberius-Caligula-Claudius-Nero along with the best of them. I know that “toast” means a grilled-cheese sandwich and that under no circumstances should one go anywhere near the Italian police. I even have a little bit of Italian blood – an eighth to be exact – though it’s true that my dad managed to live for 54 years with a hard-core Sicilian mother without picking up on the fact that “ravioli” is a plural noun (a plate full of this food item, he insists, is called “raviolis”).
Have I charmed you yet? Have you forgotten that this is supposed to be a book review? You haven’t? Fine.
I read Numero Zero because its plot sounded interesting, similar to David Mamet’s Wag the Dog. The premise is that a rich media magnate hires the protagonist, Colonna, to write a book about the long and storied history of a newspaper that, in fact, does not exist. Others are recruited to make some “dummy” editions of this paper, with the goal that, since the papers are being created after the fact, they are laid out with perfect prescience. In real life, sometimes what seems like a major story is placed on the front page, only to fizzle out in a day or two, while a story that an editor buries in a low-prestige place ends up being huge. In this newspaper, this problem will never happen because the editors making the dummy editions will know how each news story will end. Colonna’s job is to embed himself with the team making the dummy editions and then write a book about the “history” of the newspaper.
The irony of the situation above has great appeal, and I enjoyed the opening chapter about Colonna’s miserable life before he took this writing job. I even underlined a passage that intrigued me: “Losers, like autodidacts, always know so much more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing and not waste your time on anything else: the pleasures of erudition are reserved for losers. The more a person knows, the more things have gone wrong” (8-9). The only time I really felt like a partner in Eco’s satire, however, was when I noticed, about twenty pages in, that all of the characters are named after fonts. I noticed Colonna, Cambria, Palatino, and Braggadocio, and when I Googled a few other names that I did not recognize, I found that these were fonts as well. I enjoyed that little moment in a Paul-Auster sort of way, which is to say that I smiled at it and then continued unsuccessfully to find something to latch onto in this book.
I’m not really criticizing Umberto Eco. He has every right to write a satire of Italian media and culture, and I am clearly not the intended audience for this novel. I hoped that Numero Zero would give me a quick crash course in Eco before I take another stab at The Name of the Rose, but it didn’t work out that way and that’s fine. I still plan to dive into The Name of the Rose soon. It’s a different sort of book and I’m sure I’ll enjoy it, even without an introductory crash course.