Umberto Eco, 1932-2016

In the Name of Who Knows

From the archive, an interview with Umberto Eco: `We like the detective novel because the question is who. Who did it? This is the religious question - who created the world?'


What is the symbolic meaning of being granted an honorary doctorate? On Sunday morning the Italian professor of semiotics, Umberto Eco, sat on the veranda of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem just a few hours before the ceremony where he was to receive such an honor from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He pondered the question briefly and then said that over the years he had received many honorary degrees and prizes and he knew for certain "they don't prove you're the best, otherwise why did they give it to you this year and not last year? The prize is a symbol that a group of people sought to make a gesture of friendship and appreciation in your honor. And as long as that group is respectable, you're happy," he says with a laugh.

Eco, 70, is a native of Alessandria in northern Italy and the head of the department of communications at the University of Bologna. He is a big star in the world of academia due to his studies on religion, medieval history, cultural, communications and semiotics. But his greatest fame comes from the historical, philosophical and detective novels he has written. His first novel was "The Name of the Rose," which sold millions of copies (and was made into a movie starring Sean Connery). It was followed by "Foucault's Pendulum" and "The Island of the Day Before." His new book, "Baudolino," is soon to be released in Hebrew by Kinneret-Zmora Bitan.

When asked what his new book is about, he says his usual answer is to say that if he could summarize it, he would have sent a telegram and not written a 500-page book. "There are two stories here. The first idea, which is also the central idea in "Pendulum" and my other novels, is the creation of a fictitious bit of information. I thought the greatest bit of fictitious information in the history of mankind was the letter supposedly sent by John the Baptist that was discovered during the Middle Ages and describes an enchanting Christian kingdom."

This fabricated letter changed history. Entire nations began embarking on campaigns outside Europe in search of this lost kingdom. Eco also discovered that the day the letter was publicized, apparently in the milieu of the German emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, is the same day his hometown, Alessandria, was established, solely to fight the same Barbarossa. "And then I connected the two events. For me it's a return to my roots, to my origin, to my original dialect. I invented the figure of this strange young man who is a liar - Baudolino. He invents a lot of things, but everything he invents becomes real history."

Another combination of fiction and real history?

"The combination of facts and utopia interests me."

Why didn't you just write a history book?

"History is always an interpretation. Benedeto Corocce, the Italian philosopher whom I hate, said something I agree with: `History is always contemporary.' You are looking at that time from a different point of view. So it's an effort to reconstruct through imagination. Then history is polluted by violations - things like the `Donation of Constantine' was for centuries taken as a true document, and it produced real politics. The `Protocols of the Elders of Zion' is a false document that has produced real history. So we have to consider also the continuous intertwining of imagination and reality. And in a certain way, my book will be read from this perspective, even though there is pure invention here and a reader can always follow that invention only."

Eco began writing prose when he was older, after he already had an illustrious academic career. Speaking of when he was first asked why he started writing novels he says "At the beginning I gave a lot of stupid answers. People arriving at 50 usually abandon their family and escape with a ballerina and I wrote a book. It was better (or worse) for my wife. But then I discovered the only scientific answer is `because I liked it.' Tomorrow, you may decide to go on a trip to Timbuktu. Why? Because you like it."

But there is another, very romantic reason. "The truth is that I was writing novels when I was a kid, and I wisely abandoned it. Second, I believe that all my scholarly books have a narrative structure. They are the story of a quest, like a criminal story - a who dunnit. So it seems I have a fondness for, and tendency to, favor a structure with a narrative. So, at a certain moment, probably having written so many scholarly books, the first one ["The Name of the Rose"] was a sort of intellectual vacation."

When the novel was published, Eco thought it would be his only one. "But now the reason why I still write narratives is that it is a marvelous secret experience. Because a book takes me time, the `Pendulum' took me eight years and `Baudolino' took six years. I don't tell anybody that I'm writing a novel, so nobody knows what I'm doing. For six years I go around, I pick up documents, even sitting here with you and looking at that flower," he says pointing at the garden in front of him, "it gives me the idea of how to describe things. So for six years I got this form of marvelous adultery as if I have a secret lover. And it reaches to such an extent that when a book is finished I feel very sad. That's just a bad moment. And when I finish I say, `ah,' I would like to have a new idea, but usually the new idea comes later. But nobody obliges me to write a novel per year as it happens with some unfortunate colleagues who earn a living writing prose."

Why are your books always long?

"Probably I'm not a short story teller, in the same way I'm not a soccer player," he says. Eco has written dozens of books and academic studies. Over the years he has also done some journalism. He is a columnist for the Italian newspaper, Espresso and a collection of his works was published in "How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays" (Kinneret publishing). Then there are his novels, of course. Is there a difference in the writing?

"When I started writing my first novel, I didn't think about my academic knowledge. I wanted to write something completely different. But the reader found connections between the disciplines, okay. The style and esthetics are also completely different. When you write a scholarly job or even a journalistic job you want to convince somebody of something, and if they don't read you the right way you say, `No, you misunderstood me.' With a novel - no. You stage a series of contradictions, and so I cannot tell you `You have read me in the wrong way,' so there is a situation of more freedom between me and the reader."

"Then there is a continuous intertwining between the two or the three jobs. Anthropologists say civilizations are subdivided in monochronic and polychronic civilizations. In a monochronic civilization you can do only one thing at a time. Germans are a perfect monochronic civilization. Latin or Mediterranean people in general are polychronic civilizations. Personally if I get to do only one thing I would be unable to do it. If I can do two or three in a parallel way, then one has the other.

"A typical example of this is when I was collecting material for `Foucault's Pendulum.' The material accumulated was a huge amount. At a certain point, I was tempted to put it all in a novel, but then I decided to prepare a course for the university called `Hermetic thought.' In a certain respect, it was a kind of release. I transferred a lot of the material I'd collected to another side and that's why the novel received a greater level of freedom." No matter what, your novels are always detective stories, with a tendency to puzzles and mystery.

"We like the mystery, the detective novel because it maybe contains the deep, fundamental form of metaphysics. Because the question is `Who? Who did it?' - this is the question of the religious inquiry `Who created the world?' It represents a fundamental attitude of the human mind. It somehow presents the question with great clarity - although there are different levels of plot twists. Even in Balzac for example, there is always a dimension of mystery and the same is true of [Fyodor] Dostoevsky and others. The mystery story is a sort of allegory of our eternal question, who is responsible for all that?"

Eco is also the head of the department of communications at the University of Bologna. When asked if thick books are not an archaic form of communication, he shakes his head to say no. "I don't think so. The new methods of communication may be very quick, but if you want to develop an idea, it usually has to be spread out over many pages and on the Internet it's still not possible to transfer large documents. So a book is still the right way to relay ideas and opinions with intellectual depth."

How do you envision the world of communications in the future?

Eco laughs aloud. "You Jewish people are a people of prophets so don't ask me to make a prophecy, it's your job." This man, with the white beard, pastel-colored jacket, light blue shirt, bright green tie and ever-present Philip Morris cigarette dangling from his mouth, insists he is not a prophet. Proof may lie in the fact that he says he didn't foresee the success of "The Name of the Rose."

How has his life changed since then?

"Not so much my mind, I think, but certainly my everyday life. It's small things. I cannot go to the opening of a new play at the theater because there are journalists asking me my opinion, so I stay home. My life got reduced in this respect," he says with a laugh.

Maybe he has more time to write books. He says each book starts to form in his head as a complete picture. "My method is to expect an image, a new image - I never start with a precise structure, but with an image. `Pendulum,' okay, what to do then? Step by step, and then there are the marvelous six years of secret story. This is what happened with `Baudolino.' I collected a lot of material and I passed one year, and then I had the first idea, and I arrived at the start of 2000. Then I got to a difficult point, probably halfway through the book and I called it the Cape Horn - you had to make a turn. And if you don't solve this point you understand you cannot go on. So I stopped for three months. And then in two months I've finished, and I was very preoccupied. I'm not a superstitious person, but by a mere chance I finished writing `The Name of the Rose' on January 5, which is my birthday, so after that I said I have to finish my books on January 5. The point is that if I was ready in November, I put it in a drawer so as to finish it in January. And this time I finished it at the beginning of August, so I said there is something wrong, and one week later I became a grandfather. So, I realized for the first time I did not have to finish it for myself, but for my grandson to whom I dedicated the book in the end."

So let's assume Eco has no superstitions - but is he a religious person?

"No. I received a very religious education and until the age of 22 I was a militant activist in a Catholic organization. Then I left it and experienced a long philosophical crisis. But it's clear that when you receive a certain kind of education, your world of images is also connected to it. And so, one way or another, the elements of religious life recur in my novels."

How is it that at the end of the 21st century, religion is one of the most powerful and influential forces in the world?

"Because the 20th century was the century of great ideologies and these collapsed and were followed by the traditional parties. People did not find a community to associate themselves with and therefore returned to religion. Unfortunately, not only to the classic, large religions, but also to the corrupt structures of sects that came together with the New Age. In a society driven by technology, the inclination toward religion seems natural - people are religious animals, they find solace there."

Is the Jewish-Arab conflict a religious conflict?

"That's one of the hard questions. There have been problems between the religions for hundreds of years, but for a long time it didn't become a real problem. The Arabs of Spain were very tolerant and enabled the Jews and Christians to live in peace, so there is a religious problem, but I think it is complicated by other reasons that you know very well. There is not a religious problem between Italy and Iraq because there is no direct confrontation. In America, religion is not a problem - everyone believes in his own way and that's it. The religious aspect is certainly a component that can make things more difficult, but it is not the only one. Then there is the problem of fundamentalism, which is certainly linked to religion but is not identified with religion, so unfortunately, the situation is more complicated."

What's the solution?

Eco refuses to play the intellectual with the political solution. He says the role of intellectuals is to point out the problems and sometimes to say they are insoluble. "I answer like any logical person - you have to find a way to draw a line so there will be two states and you can live in peace."

Why do you think Islam has fundamentalist tendencies?

"I'm not a scholar who specialized in Islamic affairs. Sometimes when I speak with some experts or writers like Tahar bin Jalun, they explain to me that the fundamentalists statistically speaking are a minority, but sometimes a minority can blow up the world. There are a lot of Muslim people that are not fundamentalist - and on the other hand, even Mea She'arim is a place of fundamentalism, but it is a minority. One of the problems of our time is that minorities can become more effective and dangerous than before. In the fight against heretics, they were the minority - and they were massacred. Today a minority can destroy the Twin Towers. This is the problem of our time."

Eco relates that this terrorism caused him to think twice about coming here specifically now. "I deliberated about whether or not to come. Many of my friends, including my Jewish friends told me, `don't go to Jerusalem.' But, first of all, I have a strong connection to this country, I have many friends here and in my eyes it's a gesture of solidarity. Second, university people aren't senior government officials - this is a community of people capable of talking calmly and I believe it is part of their job to ease tensions. The universities remain a place of logical behavior amid the surrounding havoc - it's part of their purpose. And third, I see myself fundamentally as a coward, so I tried to demonstrate to myself that I am not a coward."