“Everything always fits with everything else,” says Braggadocio, an outlandish conspiracy theorist, and a fellow journalist of the novel’s narrator and central character, a self-declared loser, ghost writer of third-rate novels, Colonna, “you just have to know how to read the coffee grounds”
Eco, the wicked story teller with seemingly inexhaustible source of conspiracy theories, I seem to recall, had declared the Prague Cemetery as his final fictional work. I guess, the temptation of conspiracies is too much even for someone so well versed with them.
“There are many small conspiracies, and most of them are exposed,” Prof. Eco says in an interview after writing The Prague Cemetery. “But the paranoia of the universal conspiracy is more powerful because it is everlasting. You can never discover it because you don’t know who is there. It is a psychological temptation of our species”
In Numero Uno, while still continuing his long lasting love affair with conspiracies, Eco also goes a step further. He creates a conspiracy that’s sounds like the most outlandish conspiracy, when it’s probably not even a conspiracy.
As Braggadocio again — while defending a charge of looking for conspiracies where none exists — says:
Look at the court cases, it is all there, provided you’re able to find your way around the archives. The trouble is, facts get lost between one piece of news and another.
But a little bit of context first. Numero Uno is about a private newspaper that Colona, Braggadocio, and Colona’s love interest Maia, are working for, for one Mr. Simei. The newspaper, named Domani (Tomorrow), is not meant to be widely circulated, and will have “zero” editions (0/1, 0/2 …) to be published over a year, with news that’s based on facts, but with a handsome spin doctoring. Domani, then, is a newspaper that could have been: a conspiracy of a newspaper (again, as Braggadocio says somewhere else in the novel: “The point is that newspapers are not there for spreading news but for covering it up.”), meant to scare someone in power to get an entry for someone into some elite circle of power. Colona has been trusted with this information, and asked to be the editor, while Braggadocio, with a keen eye for conspiracy has half guessed it, with Maia and others completely unaware of it.
While working for stories for the paper, Braggadocio approaches Colona with the story of an elaborate conspiracy, folding piecemeal, involving a right-wing secret terror group/army, and an alternate end for Mussolini, among other things.
Much of Eco’s fictional work centers around losers being obsessed with crackpot/conspiracy theories of one kind or another, and losing track of reality. What rare female characters are there in his novels, typically see through this muddle, but the men are not ready to let go their obsession, even when sensible alternative explanations are put forward, sometimes at terrible cost to themselves, and others. In that sense, Numero Uno is no different, either.
But while Belbo of Foucalt’s Pendulum finally sees the truth when it’s too late, here, there is a sweet twist at the end. Maybe because, Prof. Eco really is tired of writing novels, and wants stop with an end to all controversies (Indeed, the Novel, short in length, does seem hurried and abrupt in the end, and could have been much more riveting, and substantive, had Eco been Eco of few years back. Still, it has its moments, and a typical Eco charm in parts. Also given that it’s his shortest novel, it’s not anywhere near as taxing as his earlier works, so ROI is probably not bad, for the effort. That said, give me Foucalt’s Pendulum any day over this). In the words of Maia, then:
“This truth will make every other revelation seem like a lie. […] As of tomorrow, you can go around saying that the pope slits the throats of babies and eats them, or that Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the one who put the bomb on the Munich train, and people will say, ‘Oh, really? Interesting,’ and they’ll turn around and get on with what they were doing”
When a conspiracy turns out to be true, the truth can become a conspiracy. And people stop caring about either, if they ever did care. In that, somewhat carelessly tossed, stratagem lies the redemption of Numero Uno, despite being less than impressive by Eco’s standard.