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Numero Zero

by Umberto Eco and Richard Dixon

Hardcover, 191 pages, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, List Price: $24 |

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Numero Zero
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Umberto Eco and Richard Dixon

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NPR Summary

The employees of a mudslinging newspaper in 1992 try to identify a dead body that appears in a back alley in Milan.

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Excerpt: Numero Zero

1

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, yousingles! 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, could it (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 theaula 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.