Academic, semiologist and bestselling author of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco is renowned for speaking volumes. He tells David Harris about his latest tome, a journey through time, space and the natural world. Photograph by Chris Blott.
lipping off the dust-jacket of Umberto Eco's latest novel. the reader is confronted with a bold embossed legend adorning the cover: ECO. In a poor light or an ungenerous mood. that central C could be mistaken for a C. but the very fact the reading public is on surname terms with the Italian author is an indication of his astonishing and rapid rise to superstardom in the literary firmament.
In the late 70s. Eco was a university professor whose published works comprised several academic texts and the occasional journalistic essay. His novel-writing career began by chance when a friend approached him with an idea: she was asking non-novelists to write a short crime story for a magazine series. and would he contribute? He declined. adding if he had to write such a story it would take place in a medieval monastery and would last 500 pages. It was the journalist's turn to decline. but Eco developed the idea and in l98(). at the age of48. produced his bestselling tale of felonious monks. The Name of the Rose.
He followed it nine years later with Foucault Is Pendulum. another doorstop of literary detection crowded with arcane booklore. Now. with The Island of the Dav Before, Eco has (partly) cschewed the world of books to write a book about the world. 'For each of my novels I started with an image.‘ he says. toying with a cigarette for several minutes before lighting it. ‘This time I had the idea of a man seeing pure nature in absolute solitude. trying to reach something that he couldn‘t.’
The man turned out to be Roberto della Griva. a callow 17th century Italian nobleman stranded. not on a desert island. but on an abandoned ship moored in the South Seas near the International Date Line. The book‘s titlc refers to this playful conceit. that he is separated from the sanctuary ofa nearby tropical island by an unbridgeablc gulf in space and 24 hours in time. Roberto longs for yesterday in more ways than one. spending his days recalling the Thirty Years War and writing meditative letters to his idealised love. now lost forever on — literally — the other side of the world.
But as Goethe remarked. even the most beautiful sunset becomes tedious after half an hour: and despite his intention to write about the natural world. Eco realized his narrative required another anchor. He found it in the story ofthe 17th century quest for the 180° meridian. Much of the novel rotates about this and other intellectual axes. and I suggest to Eco that the pedagogic impulse dominates his fiction. at times weighing down his luxuriant imagination with a reliance on researched facts.
‘I am didactic when I have to explain the search for longitudes.‘ he demurs. ‘but I try to be reasonably ambiguous as far as real
interpretation is concerned.‘ He cites the book‘s ending. where Roberto is retreating further into his fantasy world. Overcome by the realisation that the world he has lost is moving on without him. the character hopes to halt time by positioning himself for eternity on the Date Line. ‘The reader has to decide whether the finale is an optimistic or a pessimistic one. I straightforwardIy refuse to provide the answers when questioned about these points. because. as I used to say. if I could summarise the problem in ten words I would have sent a telegram.‘
As in all his fiction. Eco cannot resist ironic references to the world of ideas. and The Island ofthe Day Before brims with philosophical and scientific speculation. much of which pertains equally to contemporary debate. ‘I was charged in the previous novels with not being metaphorical enough. In this case I was playing with metaphor: firstly because it is the main figure of the Baroque era. and. secondly. a character living in an unknown world in which he sees things for the first time cannot speak but by metaphor.‘
‘I understand this novel is the history of an enormous mental masturbation, a solitary vice done with the brain instead.’
Can the looming figure of the island be taken as a metaphor for the author‘s own endeavours to reach and make present an unattainable past‘.’ ‘The past. the unattainability of desire. everything — but that comes later: first you have the image. Then. when there is a poor boy who is unable to reach an island. it's so natural to think about a situation of unhappy love. He has only two possibilities. masturbation or memory. which are the same in a way. I understand this novel is the history of an enormous mental masturbation. a solitary vice done with the brain instead. This was already contained in the first idea: once you have a situation like this. you cannot organise a cocktail party on board!‘
Although he attests that the historical setting came later in the novel's development. he admits the intellectual appeal of a period when truly encyclopaedic knowledge could be achieved. ‘There is a form of nostalgia for a time in which it was possible to have that sort of general knowledge: probably it was the last century in which that was still possible. after which they commenced the great specialisation.‘
Eco’s own specialised subject is semiotics. the study of signs and symbols. a field he once claimed could encompass everything but whose limitations he now acknowledges. ‘l have partly corrected my view.‘ he says. ‘From a semiotic point of view you can be interested in
UMBERTO ECO FEATURE
everything; what I don‘t believe any longer is that a single person or a single theory can take everything into account. Now I am saying that semiotics cannot be the name either of a science or of a discipline. but only of a big department: it‘s a permanent symposium. I have been tempted many times to rewrite my Theory of Semiotics. and probably I have given up because today the attempt would be so gigantic that it would be impossible.‘
Despite the pressures of fame. Eco tries to keep his academic and literary lives separate. and there is a strict if unexplicit embargo on discussion of his novels among his students at the University of Bologna. Nevertheless. there is a fruitful interplay of ideas between fiction and scholarship. an advantage denied most of his colleagues in the groves of Academe. This may partly explain Eco’s lionisation by the literary establishment: his apparent ability to straddle esoteric and popular culture. literature. theory and politics. As the writer of a weekly newspaper column. he is obliged to engage in the wider cultural debates. an activity which, he feels. absolves him from charges of ivory-tower detachment.
His recentjournalism has been strongly critical of the Italian media in the wake of Berlusconi, but there his political aspirations stop. ‘I think I would be a complete failure as a politician.’ he confesses. ‘I am unable to keep track of my personal business . . . imagine taking care ofthe public!‘ He allows himself a Machiavellian grin: ‘l have no objection to being the adviser to the prince; it‘s the job of prince that doesn't interest me. I always say I don‘t want power. I want authority. moral and intellectual authority. I like to say things that are taken seriously by somebody else.’
After a lifetime involved in critical discourse. how does he view critics from the receiving end‘.’ ‘Something curious happened. The ﬁrst articles were all strongly positive; then there was a second wave of articles saying there were too many positive reviews. But that‘s natural: the first writer wants to be the one who discovers the new masterpiece and the second wants to be the one who discovers that it isn’t a masterpiece. I can now predict this like a sort of mathematical forecast,‘ he laughs.
After the current media blitz. he intends to resume work ‘on serious things‘. meaning teaching. ‘I want for a while not to write anything new.‘ he says. ‘because in the last two years I published the novel. a big book on the quest for the perfect language and Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. They cut down too many trees because of me — now I give a rest to nature.’ That‘s one environmental policy that‘s bad news for Eco-freaks.
The Island of the Day Before is published by Seeker and Warburg at £16. 99.
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