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Umberto Eco.

ELEANOR WACHTEL is the host of CBC Radio's Writers & Company and The Arts Today. This interview was initially prepared in collaboration with Mary Stinson and broadcast on Writers & Company.

Umberto Eco, you grew up in a small town in northern Italy before, during, and after the fascist regime of the Second World War. I remember your saying once that all the important and dramatic events of your life happened during your childhood.

I had lived under a dictatorship without knowing it, and it was only as that dictatorship was being overthrown that I discovered there was something else in the world. I had been educated to appreciate an ideal of "heroism," of the beauty of that. And that's why I'm a pacifist now. This was the only time in my life when I was at risk of being killed. There was shooting in the streets, and I witnessed during my childhood great historical events. At the age of thirteen I learned that an atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. I remember hearing that the Nazi concentration camps had been discovered by the Allies, and before long we saw the photographs of the victims. A great deal was going on during my childhood, and those years have become my private memorial repository. In my novels there are elements of that experience. It was a real revelation for a young child to see that kind of change.

Do you remember that moment of realization, when you recognized dictatorship and began to think about other ways of living?

It was one morning, when my family had moved to the countryside because the city had been bombed. We stayed at the house of an uncle who was mildly fascist. He was a hero of the First World War, having lost an eye and part of an arm. On this particular morning he woke me up and said, "Umberto, Mussolini has been overthrown!" My uncle seemed excited, alarmed. The Duce - the man who had always seemed as eternal as a force of nature - had been dismissed, reduced to human dimensions, kicked out. And then my mother told me to go out and see if I could find a newspaper. I walked to the newsstand and saw something very strange. Suddenly there were not the usual newspapers. There were new papers with new titles. And each of them had an appeal signed by a different party - the Democratic Party, Communist Party, Liberal Party, Socialist Party - and they all were saying we had recaptured our freedom. So the first time I read the word "freedom" in this context, I learned that several parties could exist at once within a society. I soon realized that these groups had not sprung up

overnight with the fall of Mussolini; they had been there all the time, waiting and planning. Bit by bit, I realized that there was a different world, of which I had only seen hints and traces. I was curious, and in the ensuing weeks I started putting together old stories - such as the time another uncle complained to my parents about fascism, my father and my mother telling him, shhh, please don't shout. So step by step I put all these things together, and it was a full immersion.

You have this lovely line where you say that as a boy you realized that freedom of speech means freedom from rhetoric. What did you understand by that?

Mussolini's speeches and every page I read in my school books were full of rhetoric. But when the Duce was suddenly dismissed, I experienced something different. People gathered in this small town to celebrate this great moment, and a speaker appeared on a balcony to address them. The crowd fell silent, waiting to hear, and I expected a bombastic speech like those of Mussolini. But he simply said: "My friends, after so many sacrifices we are here. Long live freedom!" That was it. And so I heard the absolute absence of rhetoric. We were there on that day; it was beautiful. What else was there to say? For me it was a great discovery - a great discovery that has influenced my whole life, even my private affairs. I have tried in my life to demonstrate love, not simply to make declarations about it.

You've always maintained that a European intellectual's right and duty is to comment on politics. Is this a uniquely European tradition?

I think it is a characteristic of European intellect. In France, Germany, and Spain one can be a poet, a novelist, a philosopher, but one also feels compelled to express political ideas. It's not the same situation in America, or even in Great Britain. Recently I started thinking about why that should be, and people have pointed out that on the continent the universities, from the beginning, were in the centre of the city. In England the great universities - Oxford and Cambridge - were far away from London in smaller centres. The same pattern is followed in America. For various reasons intellectual life in the AngloSaxon countries is separated from the city - from the spatial point of view and even from the architectural point of view. In the rest of Europe the university was part of the city, and that establishes a different outlook on the intellectual's place in society.

Recently, you've been warning your readers about the renewed danger of fascism. Do you feel a greater urgency to act politically now, because of this danger?

In recent years there have been certain new phenomena in my country that led me to believe that my duty was to take a position, to speak out. In the '60s I was among the founders of the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament. When I see that I should be involved in something, I do it as a writer because that is my role. I am not a political professional, and I don't have any interest in becoming a deputy or a minister because it's not my job - and I would do it very badly.

You have talked about the liberation of 1945 and your exposure to popular culture, when American GIs introduced you to comic books. How did you get from there to St Thomas Aquinas and then back again?

Actually, I didn't go from comics to Aquinas, but from Aquinas to comic books. Even under fascism we knew a lot about American pop culture; it was one of the few areas where there was a degree of freedom. Until late 1941, when Italy declared war on the United States, we had Mickey Mouse and Flash Gordon. Some people listened to jazz, and we watched American movies. So we weren't strangers to this sort of popular culture. After the war this culture became something more - became an ideology, if you will, a symbol of a different civilization. But as a young Catholic, I was no stranger to St Thomas Aquinas either. In the beginning the high culture was something separate. Then I began to understand that these were two aspects of the same civilization. In order to explain high culture you have to understand pop culture, and vice versa. I found semiotics a good framework in which to study both aspects of the same culture. The Beatles gave me a shock, though. Their music was pop culture, but they knew the history of music very well.

There's certainly a tendency now to to be very critical of popular culture, especially television, for playing to the lowest common denominator.

Let's distinguish between pop culture and trash. Trash is a human tendency to ugliness that you can find both in pop culture and in high culture. I can think of three or four great comedians in Italy, people I consider geniuses and great artists. They are part of pop culture because when they perform there are 10,000 people, mainly young, in the audience. There is no question that these are pop artists, but they are also great artists. Of course there are also pop artists whose product is trash. That most television is geared toward the production of trash results from a lot of commercial needs, and probably it will get worse and worse. But we must remember that there is a lot of trash also among my fellow philosophers and novelists. So let's distinguish.

I'd like to talk about your latest novel The Island of the Day Before. It is about a man who is shipwrecked - but finds himself marooned on another ship, which itself is extraordinary. The story unfolds near the Fiji Islands during the seventeenth century. Why did you set the story in 1643?

I start each of my novels from an image, a strong image that grows in my mind. In The Name of the Rose, I was fascinated by the image of a poisoned monk. I started Foucault's Pendulum from the image of the pendulum and the image of the boy playing a trumpet. The only problem was how to put those two together. It took me eight years to find the connection between the two images. And at the start of this most recent project I was simply telling myself, "Okay, I've written two novels about books, museums, libraries. Would I be able to tell a story of bare nature, pure nature, only nature? Where can I find pure nature?" I had a desert island image, the ship. I started from there. The ship, the man unable to reach the island because he cannot swim, and you have everything. After that the story is able to go by itself.

Now it's interesting that when you thought about nature you thought "desert island." That's curious.

Yes, and I thought it would be interesting if between the ship and the island there was the date line, so I complicated space with that. And I discovered that the seventeenth century was the right century to set up the story. At a certain point I recognized that for me the seventeenth century has always had a certain charm, and I was very interested in the philosophy and literature of the seventeenth century. But all this came later. At the beginning I was not planning a seventeenth-century novel. It came as an internal necessity.

Where does the date line come in?

People have known for centuries that at a certain point on the globe there has to be a shift from one day to the next. The date line we have now was conventionally established only in the second half of the nineteenth century. But I discovered that this search for the way to fix longitudes, with all the fictional aspects it displays, begins to look like a spy war. It's like the secret of the enigma code, and much of this activity took place in the seventeenth century. As a young reader I had been fascinated by stories of pirates, the Three Musketeers, and Cyrano de Bergerac, and so I found it very exciting to set my story in that century. But this came only later. At the start I just let the novel make itself by itself. You have only to obey and follow it.

The Island of the Day Before has its own element of evil in a sense. The protagonist, Roberto, is haunted by his evil brother Ferrante, and we're not sure if Ferrante really exists. But whatever his nature, he plays a strong role in Roberto's life. What is that role?

That is another case in which the novel has decided what to do on its own. In order to write a novel I studied a lot of seventeenth-century novels. In that century the real bourgeois novel has its beginnings, and in the following century we see the rise of the modern novel. And for these early novelists, one element that is fundamental in every story is the double. So at the beginning, setting out to write a seventeenth-century novel, I inserted such a double, but at first I didn't know what to do with him. Now I could have eliminated him after if I couldn't figure out how to use this character properly. But at a certain point, as I worked on the first half of novel and had to narrate the story of Roberto trying to swim to the island, I realized I couldn't go on, chapter after chapter, describing this man swimming. And then I discovered that the double could be used to make Roberto tell his own story in another way, and then I had the story of Ferrante.

Just so it's clear, we have Roberto trapped on a ship, tantalizingly close to the safety of an island. And the island is on the other side of the date line, which is how we get to the island "the day before," which enables you to have a wonderful time playing with time.

And it is not only an island. It becomes his beloved. It becomes his past. It becomes everything. Everything that cannot be reached ... an infinite object of desire.

There's something very poignant here, this yearning for something that is totally unfulfillable.

Yes, that's true, and when somebody asked me if the story was inspired by that of Robinson Crusoe, I said no, because Robinson is exactly the opposite. Robinson is unable to want the skies, the sea, trees, animals. He is only interested in transforming the island. He doesn't see trees; he sees only timber he wants to cut. Crusoe is a real merchant interested in transforming the wilderness, while my character loves the island as he finds it.

As we would expect in any novel by Umberto Eco, there are a number of stories going on here. Roberto is on a mission to find this longitudinal line, the international date line, when he's shipwrecked. How does he use the date line himself? I mean, to interpret his own sense of possibility?

Of course in Roberto's time there was no precise date line because everybody simply counted the first meridian from their own city, be it Rome, Bologna, or Paris. So I used the idea of our modern date line, and I had the character Father Casper imagine, with the aid of very mysterious calculations, the location of the date line, determined by a sort of divine decree. At this point I had the narrative situation to take Roberto to the island. And his mission becomes not just to reach the island but to overcome time, which is a fascinating idea. Each of us sometimes wishes we could go back, to start again - even though, I'm convinced, this would be very boring. But it remains a dream of ours.

Time figures so prominently in this work. Roberto is on a ship that is full of clocks.

Yes, I discovered that Baroque poetry is full of clocks. These people were fascinated by clocks, by time. They wrote a lot of poetry about clocks. They were living in a century in which humanity's whole vision of the universe was falling apart. New natural laws were being discovered. Earlier, in the writings of St Augustine, you have marvellous discussions of the idea of time, but this was an internal time, a psychological time. Through the Middle Ages, time was an accident in order, an accident in the great framework of eternity. But by Roberto's day, time is becoming a cosmological phenomenon. His contemporaries are fascinated by this whole notion, and they are greatly refining the art of clock making. Their work will eventually lead to the invention of the marine chronometer. Three centuries before Einstein, these people were beginning to think about time and space in a whole new way.

Near the end of The Island of the Day Before there's a description of Roberto looking up at the night sky of the southern hemisphere, and he's excited but also alarmed by the unfamiliar stars.

Yes, that was a real experience for these people. Try to imagine what it was like for them - when people started circumnavigating the globe and saw the sky they had always known slipping away as they travelled south. For them this was a sort of divine design, always overhead at night. To see it change its form must have been overwhelming. In the southern hemisphere there was suddenly a whole new sky full of unknown stars, unknown constellations. For such voyagers it was an enormous challenge, and they started to lose their sense of being at the centre of the universe. The universe changed right over their heads. We have to understand the feeling they had, otherwise we won't understand how it influenced them to create things like Baroque architecture, an architectural style in which you are encouraged to keep changing your point of observation, seeing the building from different perspectives.

And ultimately Roberto has to choose some sort of interpretation of the constellations because he feels a kind of vortex around himself.

Yes, "vortex" is a good word for this sensation, one frequently used at that time in the entire cosmology. The entire structure of the universe is made of vortices. And people began to understand the universe as a whirling machine, whereas before it was perceived as more static.

How does this change Roberto?

Roberto is a poor boy who tries to understand something unknown. But he doesn't realize that what he is wrestling with is something so profound it will eventually shape all the philosophy of his time. He casts it away because he doesn't know what to do with it. Roberto is a normal young human being who cannot understand the massive implications of this change of perspective. I didn't want a very smart card. I wanted a naive one, to provide the reader with the same sense of shock and wonder.

Umberto Eco, your previous novels The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum also deal with whole universes of a certain period. They deal with codes and signs, but they have more of a thriller's driven plot line than your most recent work. What did you want to do with The Island of the Day Before?

Not to have a plot, because if I set a poor boy alone on a deserted ship there is no plot. So the novel is in search of itself. It's a novel about plots and in some sense the futility of plotting too much. It's about the impossibilities of language when it comes to describing an unknown reality. Roberto doesn't know how to name these strange birds, trees, and flowers because he has never seen things of this kind.

All three of your novels involve a kind of search, a search for something, a search for a code, a search for meaning to life. Is this your own search?

Certainly, otherwise I wouldn't write novels. But it's not just my problem. It's also yours, and everybody's.

But I was thinking about how at one point in The Island of the Day Before the narrator says that we should give fantasy free rein and imagine how it might have happened. He throws it open to us that there are different choices when it comes to understanding how things may have happened - what to believe, what not to believe. And I find myself thinking about the narrator as much as about Roberto and some of the other characters. I wonder what relationship you want the reader and the narrator to have?

In this novel the narrator is a perplexed voice who doesn't know what to do. He or she or it - we don't know whose voice this is. This started mainly as a linguistic problem. I knew that my characters had to speak in the Baroque manner, but it was impossible to write the whole novel in a Baroque style. And it was impossible to write it in a modern style, so the narrator became me as I tried to deal with my characters. The last chapter is devoted to the final perplexities of the narrator. He's unsure even of the existence of the man. This novel is a sort of meta-story. If the model reader is eager to play, it works well, if the model reader has read Barbara Cartland.

But in reading The Island of the Day Before, your model reader has to be prepared to enter the meta-fiction of that world.

Actually, I hope he or she can enjoy the adventures in themselves and then at a certain point can realize that we have also been involved in a meta-story. But at the beginning, the reader can be thrust into the story - this poor boy, the sea, the island, which I think is pretty adventurous and cloak-and-dagger. And then at a certain point the reader will be drawn up step by step into the pleasure of meta-narration. I hope so.
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Author:Wachtel, Eleanor
Publication:Queen's Quarterly
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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