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'Numero Zero' Reprises Umberto Eco's Fascination With 'Losers'


Rod Stewart joins us in a few minutes with his latest CD. It ranges from lullabies to his son and recollections of his own rambunctious youth. But first, Umberto Eco has a new novel. It's about a Roma journalist named Colonna who's recruited to run a newspaper in the Italy of 1992, a newspaper called Domani or Tomorrow because the day it comes out will never be. The publisher intends only to use the paper as a vehicle to concoct nonsense, fuel fantasies and contrive conspiracy theories that could be used to blackmail people of Italy's inner sanctum of power - government, military, finance, the papacy. The book is "Numero Zero," and Umberto Eco, one of the best-selling authors in the world, joins us from Milan. Thanks so much for being with us.

UMBERTO ECO: Thank you, yes.

SIMON: Colonna, your journalist, says I dreamed what all losers dream, about one day writing a book that would bring me fame and fortune. Does being a loser make him vulnerable to saying yes to the schemes of the publisher?

ECO: No, well, all the characters of my novel are losers (laughter). Obviously, you must be a loser in order to work for a newspaper like that. I'm always fascinated by losers, also. Also, in my "Foucault's Pendulum," the main characters, who are in a way losers, they are more interesting than the winners.

SIMON: And why is that?

ECO: They have a more complicated psychology. And then in the world, there are more losers than winners, and so my readers can identify themselves with the characters.

SIMON: At the heart of the story is a tipster, maybe pointedly named Braggadocio. And he's peddling a story - or maybe more a suspicion - that was Benito Mussolini really killed by Italian partisans then hung upside down along his mistress in the Piazzale Loreto?

ECO: OK, listen, every fact in my novel is true except this story of Mussolini because Braggadocio is evidently a paranoid devotee of conspiracies, and so I have invented these conceived conspiracies. It seems to me pretty evident that Mussolini was shot, but all the old facts that look as incredible are true. They really happened.

SIMON: Do you want people to read your novel and wonder if they can believe what they see, hear or read in the news?

ECO: Well, somebody has suggested to use my novel in the schools of journalism to teach what journalists shouldn't do. I hope that some reader will become more suspicious and attentive when reading a newspaper.

SIMON: I was struck toward the end of your story when a character says - I'll quote now - (reading) who was it said the truth shall set you free? You can't go around saying - and then he provides a lot of nonsense in there - and then he says (reading) and people will say, oh, really? It's interesting, and they'll turn around and get on with what they're doing.

To what degree do you share the sentiments of that character, that we read about terrible things and then turn away?

ECO: Oh, yes - in a way, the final moral of my novel is that in 30 years, terrible things happen that we read about them, but we have remained practically indifferent. And that was the real tragedy, not the fact that the boom blew up or a lot of people died, but that we have remained indifferent. You know - there is a sickness in the media where we read on Monday something and on Tuesday we have already forgot what we have read. That is a real tragedy. News do not affect us in the way they should.

SIMON: Umberto Eco, his novel "Numero Zero." Thanks so much for being with us.

ECO: Thank you, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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