BSSB.BE theparisreview.org/ 22.02.2016
Umberto Eco, The Art of Fiction No. 197 Interviewed by Lila Azam Zanganeh
You were a child when Fascism thrived in Italy and the war began. How did you perceive it then?
ECO: We couldn’t imagine that there was another way of living. I remember that period with the same tenderness with which anyone remembers childhood. I even remember the bombings, and the nights we spent in the shelter, with tenderness. When it all ended in 1943, with the first collapse of Fascism, I discovered in the democratic newspapers the existence of different political parties and views.
To escape the bombings from September 1943 to April 1945—the most traumatic years in our nation’s history—my mother, my sister, and I went to live in the countryside, up in Monferrato, a Piedmontese village that was at the epicenter of the resistance.
In the postscript to The Name of the Rose you wrote, “I see the period everywhere, transparently overlaying my daily concerns, which do not look medieval, though they are.” How are your daily concerns medieval?
ECO: My whole life, I have had innumerable experiences of full immersion in the Middle Ages. For instance, in preparing my thesis, I went twice for monthlong trips to Paris, conducting research at the Bibliothèque Nationale.
And I decided in those two months to live only in the Middle Ages. If you reduce the map of Paris, selecting only certain streets, you can really live in the Middle Ages. Then you start to think and feel like a man of the Middle Ages. I remember, for instance, that my wife, who has a green thumb and knows the names of just about all the herbs and flowers in the world, always reproached me prior to The Name of the Rose for not looking properly at nature.
Once, in the countryside, we made a bonfire and she said, Look at the embers flying up among the trees. Of course I didn’t pay attention. Later on, when she read the last chapter of The Name of the Rose, in which I describe a similar fire, she said, So you did look at the embers! And I said, No, but I know how a medieval monk would look at embers.
INTERVIEWER : You’ve said that in your books you never make conscious parallels between the Middle Ages and modern times, but that seems to be part of the period’s attraction for you.
ECO: Yes, but one must be extremely careful with analogies. Once I wrote an essay in which I made some parallels between the Middle Ages and our time. But if you give me fifty dollars, I will write you an essay about the parallels between our time and the time of the Neanderthals. It’s always easy to find parallels.
I think nonetheless that being concerned with history means making erudite parallels with the present time. I confess to being monstrously old-fashioned, and I still believe, like Cicero did, that historia magistra vitae: history is the teacher of life.
You once said that semiotics is the theory of lying.
ECO: Instead of “lying,” I should have said, “telling the contrary of the truth.” Human beings can tell fairy tales, imagine new worlds, make mistakes—and we can lie. Language accounts for all those possibilities.
Lying is a specifically human ability. A dog, following a track, is following a scent. Neither the dog nor the scent “lies,” so to speak. But I can lie to you and tell you to go in that direction, which is not the direction you have asked about, and yet you believe me and you go in the wrong direction. The reason this is possible is that we depend on signs.
INTERVIEWER: What drew you to write novels based on historical events?
ECO: The historical novel for me is not so much a fictionalized version of real events as a fiction that will actually enable us to better understand the real history. I also like to combine the historical novel with elements of the bildungsroman. In all my novels, there is always a young character who grows up and learns and suffers through a series of experiences.
INTERVIEWER But did writing novels change your idea of how much you could influence the reader as an author?
ECO : I always assume that a good book is more intelligent than its author. It can say things that the writer is not aware of.
INTERVIEWER: What do you make of those who proclaim the death of the novel, the death of books, the death of reading?
ECO: To believe in the end of something is a typical cultural posture. Since the Greeks and the Latins we have persisted in believing that our ancestors were better than us. I am always amused and interested by this kind of sport, which the mass media practice with increasing ferocity. Every season there is an article on the end of the novel, the end of literature, the end of literacy in America. People don’t read any longer!
Teenagers only play video games! The fact of the matter is that all over the world there are thousands of stores full of books and full of young people. Never in the history of mankind have there been so many books, so many places selling books, so many young people visiting these places and buying books.
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