Numero zero


  * * *

  Title Page





  Saturday, June 6, 1992, 8 a.m.

  Monday, April 6, 1992

  Tuesday, April 7

  Wednesday, April 8

  Friday, April 10

  Wednesday, April 15

  Wednesday, April 15, Evening

  Friday, April 17

  Friday, April 24

  Sunday, May 3

  Friday, May 8

  Monday, May 11

  Late May

  Wednesday, May 27

  Thursday, May 28

  Saturday, June 6

  Saturday, June 6, Noon

  Thursday, June 11

  Read More from Umberto Eco

  About the Author

  First U.S. edition

  Copyright © 2015 by RCS Libri S.p.A.

  English translation copyright © 2015 by Richard Dixon

  All rights reserved

  For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to [email protected] or to Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 3 Park Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available.

  ISBN 978-0-544-63508-1 (hardback)

  ISBN 978-0-544-66826-3 (trade paper international edition)

  This book was originally published in Italian with the title Numero Zero.

  Cover design by Michaela Sullivan

  Cover photograph © Françoise Lacroix/

  eISBN 978-0-544-63509-8


  For Anita

  Only connect!



  Saturday, June 6, 1992, 8 a.m.

  No water in the tap this morning.

  Gurgle, gurgle, two sounds like a baby’s burp, then nothing.

  I knocked next door: everything was fine there. You must have closed the valve, she said. Me? I don’t even know where it is. Haven’t been here long, you know, don’t get home till late. Good heavens! But don’t you turn off the water and gas when you’re away for a week? Me, no. That’s pretty careless. Let me come in, I’ll show you.

  She opened the cupboard beneath the sink, moved something, and the water was on. See? You’d turned it off. Sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Ah, you singles! Exit neighbor: now even she talks English.

  Keep calm. There are no such things as poltergeists, only in films. And I’m no sleepwalker, but even if I had sleepwalked, I wouldn’t have known anything about the valve or I’d have closed it when I couldn’t sleep, because the shower leaks and I’m always liable to spend the night wide-eyed listening to the dripping, like Chopin at Valldemossa. In fact, I often wake up, get out of bed, and shut the bathroom door so I don’t hear that goddamn drip.

  It couldn’t have been an electrical contact (it’s a hand valve, it can only be worked by hand), or a mouse, which, even if there was a mouse, would hardly have had the strength to move such a contraption. It’s an old-fashioned tap (everything in this apartment dates back at least fifty years) and rusty besides. So it needed a hand. Humanoid. And I don’t have a chimney down which the Ourang-Outang of Rue Morgue could have climbed.

  Let’s think. Every effect has its cause, or so they say. We can rule out a miracle—I can’t see why God would worry about my shower, it’s hardly the Red Sea. So, a natural effect, a natural cause. Last night before going to bed, I took a sleeping pill with a glass of water. Obviously the water was still running then. This morning it wasn’t. So, my dear Watson, the valve had been closed during the night—and not by you. Someone was in my house, and he, they, were afraid I might have been disturbed, not by the noise they were making (they were silent as the grave) but by the drip, which might have irritated even them, and perhaps they wondered why I didn’t stir. And, very craftily, they did what my neighbor would have done: they turned off the water.

  And then? My books are in their usual disarray, half the world’s secret services could have gone through them page by page without my noticing. No point looking in the drawers and opening the cupboard in the corridor. If they wanted to make a discovery, there’s only one thing to do these days: rummage through the computer. Perhaps they’d copied everything so as not to waste time and gone back home. And only now, opening and reopening each document, they’d have realized there was nothing in the computer that could possibly interest them.

  What were they hoping to find? It’s obvious—I mean, I can’t see any other explanation—they were looking for something to do with the newspaper. They’re not stupid, they’d have assumed I must have made notes about all the work we are doing in the newsroom—and therefore that, if I knew anything about the Braggadocio business, I’d have written it down somewhere. Now they’ll have worked out the truth, that I keep everything on a diskette. Last night, of course, they’d also have been to the office and found no diskette of mine. So they’ll be coming to the conclusion (but only now) that I keep it in my pocket. What idiots we are, they’ll be saying, we should have checked his jacket. Idiots? Shits. If they were smart, they wouldn’t have ended up doing such a scummy job.

  Now they’ll have another go, at least until they arrive at the stolen letter. They’ll arrange for me to be jostled in the street by fake pickpockets. So I’d better get moving before they try again. I’ll send the diskette to a poste restante address and decide later when to pick it up. What on earth am I thinking of, one man is already dead, and Simei has flown the nest. They don’t even need to know if I know, and what I know. They’ll get rid of me just to be on the safe side, and that’s the end of it. I can hardly go around telling the newspapers I knew nothing about the whole business, since just by saying it I’d make it clear I knew what had happened.

  How did I end up in this mess? I think it’s all the fault of Professor Di Samis and the fact that I know German.

  What makes me think of Di Samis, a business of decades ago? I’ve always blamed Di Samis for my failure to graduate, and it’s all because I never graduated that I ended up in this mess. And then Anna left me after two years of marriage because she’d come to realize, in her words, that I was a compulsive loser—God knows what I must have told her at the time to make myself look good.

  I never graduated due to the fact that I know German. My grandmother came from South Tyrol and made me speak it when I was young. Right from my first year at university I’d taken to translating books from German to pay for my studies. Just knowing German was a profession at the time. You could read and translate books that others didn’t understand (books regarded as important then), and you were paid better than translators from French and even from English. Today I think the same is true of those who know Chinese or Russian. In any event, either you translate or you graduate; you can’t do both. Translation means staying at home, in the warmth or the cold, working in your slippers and learning tons of things in the process. So why go to university lectures?

  I decided on a whim to register for a German course. I wouldn’t have to study much, I thought, since I already knew it all. The luminary at that time was Professor Di Samis, who had created what the students called his eagle’s nest in a dilapidated Baroque palace where you climbed a grand staircase to reach a large atrium. On one side was Di Samis’s establishment, on the other the aula magna, as the professor pompously called it, a lecture hall with fifty or so seats.

  You could enter his establishment only if you put on felt slippers. At the entrance there were enough for the assistants and two or three students. Those without slippers had to wait their turn outside. Everything was polished to a high gloss, even, I think,
the books on the walls. And even the faces of the elderly assistants who had been waiting their chance for a teaching position from time immemorial.

  The lecture hall had a lofty vaulted ceiling and Gothic windows (I never understood why, in a Baroque palace) with green stained glass. At the correct time, which is to say at fourteen minutes past the hour, Professor Di Samis emerged from the institute, followed at a distance of one meter by his oldest assistant and at two meters by the younger ones, those under fifty. The oldest assistant carried his books, the younger ones the tape recorder—tape recorders at that time were still enormous, and looked like a Rolls-Royce.

  Di Samis covered the ten meters that separated the institute from the hall as though they were twenty: he didn’t follow a straight line but a curve (whether a parabola or an ellipse I’m not sure), proclaiming loudly, “Here we are, here we are!” Then he entered the lecture hall and sat down on a kind of carved podium, waiting to begin with Call me Ishmael.

  The green light from the stained-glass windows gave a cadaverous appearance to the face that smiled malevolently, as the assistants set up the tape recorder. Then he began: “Contrary to what my valiant colleague Professor Bocardo has said recently . . .” and so on for two hours.

  That green light sent me into a watery slumber, to be seen also in the eyes of his assistants. I shared their suffering. At the end of the two hours, while we students swarmed out, Professor Di Samis had the tape rewound, stepped down from the podium, seated himself democratically in the front row with his assistants, and together they all listened again to the two-hour lecture, while the professor nodded with satisfaction at each passage he considered essential. It should be noted that the course was on the translation of the Bible in the German of Luther. What a phenomenon, my classmates would say with a forlorn expression.

  At the end of the second year, attending infrequently, I ventured to ask whether I could do my thesis on irony in Heine. (I found it consoling the way that he treated unhappy experiences of love with what I felt to be appropriate cynicism—I was preparing for my own experiences of love.) “You young people, you young people,” Di Samis would say sadly, “you want to hurl yourselves immediately at modern authors.”

  I understood, in a sort of flash, that there was no hope of doing the thesis with Di Samis. Then I thought of Professor Ferio, who was younger and enjoyed a reputation for dazzling intelligence, and who studied the romantic period and around there. But my older classmates warned me that, in any event, I would have Di Samis as second supervisor for the thesis, and not to approach Professor Ferio directly because Di Samis would immediately find out and swear eternal enmity. I had to go by an indirect route, as though Ferio had asked me to do the thesis with him, and De Samis would then take it out on him and not me. Di Samis hated Ferio for the simple reason that he himself had appointed Ferio as professor. At university (then, though still, I understand, today), things are the opposite of the ways of the normal world: it isn’t the sons who hate the fathers, but the fathers who hate the sons.

  I thought I’d be able to approach Ferio casually during one of the monthly conferences that Di Samis organized in his aula magna, attended by many colleagues, since he always succeeded in inviting famous scholars.

  Things evolved as follows: Right after the conference was the debate, monopolized by professors. Then everyone left, the speaker having been invited to eat at La Tartaruga, the best restaurant in the area, mid-nineteenth-century style, with waiters in tailcoats. To get from the eagle’s nest to the restaurant, one had to walk down a large porticoed street, then across a historic piazza, turn the corner of an elaborate building, and finally cross a smaller piazza. The speaker made his way along the porticoes surrounded by the senior professors, followed one meter behind by the associates, two meters behind by the younger associates, and trailing at a reasonable distance behind them, the bolder students. Having reached the historic piazza the students walked off, at the corner of the elaborate building the assistants took their leave, the associates crossed the smaller piazza and said goodbye at the entrance to the restaurant, where only the guest and the senior professors entered.

  So it was that Professor Ferio never came to hear of my existence. In the meantime I fell out of love with the place and stopped attending. I translated like an automaton, but you have to take whatever they give you, and I was rendering a three-volume work on the role of Friedrich List in the creation of the Zollverein, the German Customs Union, in dolce stil novo. So you can understand why I gave up translating from German, but by now it was getting late to return to university.

  The trouble is, you don’t get used to the idea: you still feel sure that someday or other you’ll complete all the exams and do your thesis. And anyone who nurtures impossible hopes is already a loser. Once you come to realize it, you just give up.

  At first I found work as a tutor to a German boy, too stupid to go to school, in the Engadin. Excellent climate, acceptably isolated, and I held out for a year as the money was good. Then one day the boy’s mother pressed herself against me in a corridor, letting me understand that she was available. She had buck teeth and a hint of a mustache, and I politely indicated that I wasn’t of the same mind. Three days later I was fired because the boy was making no progress.

  After that I made a living as a hack journalist. I wanted to write for magazines, but the only interest came from a few local newspapers, so I did things like reviews of provincial shows and touring companies, earning a pittance. I had just enough time to review the warm-up act, peeping from the wings at the dancing girls dressed in their sailor suits and following them to the milk bar, where they would order a suppertime caffè latte, and if they weren’t too hard up, a fried egg. I had my first sexual experiences then, with a singer, in exchange for an indulgent write-up for a newspaper in Saluzzo.

  I had no place I could call home. I lived in various cities (I moved to Milan once I received the call from Simei), checking proofs for at least three publishing houses (university presses, never for the large publishers), and edited the entries for an encyclopedia (which meant checking the dates, titles of works, and so on). Losers, like autodidacts, always know much more than winners. If you want to win, you need to know just one thing and not to 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.

  I spent several years reading manuscripts that publishers (sometimes important ones) passed on to me, as in a publishing house no one has any wish to read the manuscripts that just turn up. They used to pay me five thousand lire per manuscript. I’d spend the whole day stretched out in bed reading furiously, then write an opinion on two sheets of paper, employing the best of my sarcasm to destroy the unsuspecting author, while at the publishing house there was a sigh of relief and a letter promptly dispatched to the improvident wretch: So sorry to say no, etc. etc. Reading manuscripts that are never going to be published can become a vocation.

  Meanwhile there was the business with Anna, which ended as it had to end. After that I was never able (or have steadfastly refused) to find any interest in a woman, since I was afraid of messing it up again. I sought out sex for therapeutic purposes, the occasional casual encounter where you don’t need to worry about falling in love, one night and that’s it, thank you, and the occasional relationship for payment, so as not to become obsessed by desire.

  All this notwithstanding, I dreamed what all losers dream, about one day writing a book that would bring me fame and fortune. To learn how to become a great writer, I became what in the last century was called the nègre (or ghostwriter, as they say today, to be politically correct) for an author of detective stories who gave himself an American name to improve sales, like the actors in spaghetti westerns. But I enjoyed working in the shadows, hidden behind a double veil (the Other’s and the Other’s other name).

  Writing detective stories for somebody else was easy, all you had to do was imitate the style of Chandler or, at wors
t, Mickey Spillane. But when I tried writing a book of my own, I realized that in describing someone or something, I’d always be making cultural allusions: I couldn’t just say that so-and-so was walking along on a bright cloudless afternoon, but would end up saying he was walking “beneath a Canaletto sky.” I know that this was what D’Annunzio used to do: in order to say that a certain Costanza Landbrook had a particular quality, he would write that she seemed like a creation of Thomas Lawrence; of Elena Muti he observed that her features recalled certain profiles of early Moreau, and that Andrea Sperelli reminded him of the portrait of the unknown gentleman in the Borghese Gallery. And to understand what’s going on in a novel, you had to thumb through issues of art history magazines on sale in the bookstalls.

  If D’Annunzio was a bad writer, that didn’t mean I had to be one. To rid myself of the habit of citing others, I decided not to write at all.

  In short, mine hadn’t been much of a life. And now, at my age, I receive Simei’s invitation. Why not? Might as well try it.

  What do I do? If I stick my nose outside, I’ll be taking a risk. It’s better to wait here. There are some boxes of crackers and cans of meat in the kitchen. I still have half a bottle of whiskey left over from last night. It might help to pass a day or two. I’ll pour a few drops (and then perhaps a few more, but only in the afternoon, since drinking in the morning numbs the mind) and try to go back to the beginning of this adventure, no need to refer to my diskette. I recall everything quite clearly, at least at the moment.

  Fear of death concentrates the mind.


  Monday, April 6, 1992


  “A book. The memoirs of a journalist, the story of a year’s work setting up a newspaper that will never be published. The title of the newspaper is to be Domani, tomorrow, which sounds like a slogan for our government: tomorrow, we’ll talk about it tomorrow! So the title of the book has to be Domani: Yesterday. Good, eh?”

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