Umberto Eco has been described as a semiologist, a philosopher, a medievalist, a philologist, a literary critic, and a leader in the field of cultural studies, as well as an author of international bestsellers. For his students and associates, though, he is simply il professore. How does Eco describe himself? “I’ve always thought of myself as a scholar who, at a certain point, began to write novels on the weekend... in the summer.”
We are sitting in the 83-year-old Eco’s spacious, book-filled apartment in Milan on a sunny autumn morning. He is a large man, impeccably but casually dressed, and as he settles back in his chair, he reaches for a small cigar. “I haven’t smoked in 11 years, but still like an occasional unlit cigarino.”
Over coffee, our conversation touches on lies, the Internet, journalism, incunabula, male midlife crisis, forgeries, and Eco’s new novel, Numero Zero (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt will publish an English translation in November). Like all of his novels, Numero Zero is a multilayered work. In one sense, it is about an editor who creates a bogus newspaper in the hopes of blackmailing his way to an easy future. But it is also about corruption and conspiracy theories—some real and some invented (perhaps)—and includes musings on journalistic manipulation and the paranoia that develops when one is dealing with an ever-shifting version of the truth.
“I set the book in 1992 because I wanted it to be before the Internet,” Eco says. “If we introduce the Web and Internet into this context, it would be a very different story—one that we don’t have the historic distance to write about because we are living within it. So, I wrote about classic journalism. Obviously, today newspapers fall into other traps. But I think that the vices remain substantially the same. The press is condemned to be a parasite. In the past, the press often recycled information—sometimes gossip—from television. Now, on the other hand, they are parasites of the Internet.”
I ask him why he thinks the mainstream media seems to have gone so wrong when reporting recent political campaigns, both in the United Kingdom and the United States. “Because the technique of reporting gossip has widened to include the world of politics,” Eco says. “You have only to think of all the useless speculation in mid-September about the Nobel Prize, with bookmakers making predictions that are always wrong. Mass media cannot wait. It is history that has to wait. It is the historian who has to wait for Napoleon to die before writing about it. Mass media can’t do that. They have to fill their space. They must therefore transform things that are not news into news.”
Eco says that “since the Nixon-Kennedy debates, politics has also become theater.” He adds, “Nixon lost because he didn’t shave closely enough, while Kennedy won because he kept his head up a bit. These are not the reasons Truman, Eisenhower, or Roosevelt won elections. That was the first time in history that politics became theater. And from that point on it has remained as such. And the more you report on the theater, the more you transform what you are observing into theater.”
When the conversation turns to Eco’s “semiologic, curiosity, lunatic, magic, and pneumatic library,” as he describes his collection of antique books, he says,“These are the words used in antique catalogues to describe books that are about falsity and frauds. For instance, there are no books by Galileo in my collection, but Ptolemy is there. Because Galileo told the truth, while poor old Ptolemy [an ancient Greco-Egyptian philosopher who argued that the Earth was the center of the universe] was in error. As to why I have this passion... it’s like asking someone why he climbs Monte Bianco.” Eco draws on his unlit cigar, growing thoughtful. “In large part this passion stems from when I was writing Foucault’s Pendulum (Harcourt Brace, 1989), in which I examined the far-fetched theories of the occultist.”
Foucault’s Pendulum is about three waggish publishing employees who, having read far too many manuscripts about crazy theories, decide, as a game, to make up a conspiracy theory of their own. They link the Knights Templars to practically every occult manifestation in history, suggesting that the Templars are destined to take over the world. The trio is soon in fear for their lives, threatened by a secret society that has taken their game all too seriously.
“It was I who invented Dan Brown; he was a character in that book,” Eco says, laughing. “It was while I was working on Foucault’s Pendulum that I started receiving the money from the translation of The Name of the Rose. And I decided to use it to buy these books. I have always been obsessed—also in my role as a scholar—with the problem of fakes and forgeries. I even wrote a book, Travels in Hyper Reality (Harcourt Brace, 1986), on American fakes. And I have written essays on falsification. For it is one of the main questions for a philosopher: what is truth? To tell the truth is very difficult, whereas it is easy to talk about fakes. So, this collection of books is my way to try to understand falsification and lies.”
Eco’s reply to the question of how he came to write his first novel, The Name of the Rose (Harcourt Brace, 1983; first published in Italian in 1980), elicits—as with all the questions I asked—four to seven different answers, all tangentially related, each showing a slightly different facet of the question. “I never know how to answer that fully,” Eco says. “The only scientific answer is that I did so because I wanted to. There are other answers that are equally true. I was headed toward the age of 50, and at 50 a man enters into crisis and runs off with a Cuban dancer. However, I found it more comfortable to write a book while staying happily at home.” There is a glint of good humor in his eyes. “Another reason is that academically I had reached the acme of my career, my books were published in various languages, and perhaps from that sprang the challenge to try something else. Also, I have always had a narrative impulse, which I vented by telling stories to my children, and since they were grown-up I began to think about telling a story to someone else. The fifth reason is that, evidently, there was a need that existed in me to do so, one that I was not aware of until one day a friend, who worked at a very small publishing company, told me she was interested in doing a series of short detective novels—books of around 100 pages—written by people who were not novelists, such as a politician, a sociologist, and so on. I said that I was not interested in this because I didn’t think I could write dialogue, and because if I were going to write a mystery it would have to be 500 pages long and take place in a medieval monastery. She said, ‘No, thank you, this is not what I am looking for.’ ” Eco’s laugh fills the room. “But when I returned home I found myself making a list of names for monks. So, you can see that something was already churning around in my subconscious.”
And what is Eco’s writing life now, some 30 years on? “There are no rules,” he says. “I write when I can and when I like. I work well in the country at night, with the distant howling of the dogs across the valley.” He adds, “All my books are finished there,” referring to his country house, a former convent, in the Marche region of Italy.
And is he working on a new novel? “My books are usually written six years from one to the other. It was eight years for Foucault’s Pendulum. So we will have to talk again when I am 90.” I can hardly wait.
Patricia Guy is a freelance writer living in Verona, Italy, where she writes about wine, food, and Italian culture.