Archival Interview: Umberto Eco on Truth, Fiction, and the Holy Grail
“It was a beautiful story. Too bad no one will find out about it.”
“You surely don’t believe that you’re the only writer of stories in this world. Sooner or later, someone — a greater liar than Baudolino — will tell it.” — Umberto Eco, Baudolino
Umberto Eco likes to tell stories. Indeed, he believes the need to tell stories is part of what makes us human. “I think that every human being has a fundamental impulse to narrate stories, and usually people do that with their children. When I published my first novel people asked me, ‘Why did you write a novel?’ I said, ‘When my children were children I could tell stories to them. When they became adults I didn’t know to whom I could tell stories, so I decided to write a novel.’” Eco tells very fine stories. That first novel, The Name of the Rose, became an international bestseller, as have his other works of fiction. The Name of the Rose was an utterly absorbing medieval murder mystery with apocalyptic undertones. Foucault’s Pendulum was a supernatural thriller, complete with elaborate conspiracy theories and Brazilian voodoo. The Island of the Day Before is a spy novel set on the high seas of the Baroque era. But to reduce Eco’s novels to their plots is to miss half the fun. Eco, a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, writes stories that fit his own definition of the postmodern novel. In an essay called “Postmodernism, Irony, the Enjoyable,” Eco described the ideal postmodern novel as one which can be enjoyed by anyone who likes a good yarn, but which also contains further, hidden delights for cognoscenti; and these two groups of readers are not mutually exclusive.
Eco delivers another philosophically rich entertainment in his latest novel. His new hero, Baudolino, is the foster son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. He’s also a natural liar with the gift to learn any language as soon as he hears it. He lands in Constantinople as Crusaders are sacking the Byzantine capital. When he rescues a court historian named Niketas, Baudolino decides to tell the man his life story. It’s quite a story. While searching for the kingdom of the legendary king Prester John, Baudolino attends a university in Paris, sells the Shroud of Turin, and encounters some of the more prodigious species from ancient works of natural history — Baudolino even falls in love with a beautiful female satyr. Eco weaves a lot of erudition into this adventure; he even uses the narrative to play with some of his own theoretical constructs. Baudolino and his band, for example, go into the religious artifacts business, creating and selling heads of John the Baptist; these counterfeit relics, though, become what Eco has called “absolute fakes” when they become objects of real Christian devotion. Baudolino is at once a parable about storytelling, a meditation on truth, and a fantastic historical fiction.
So, are we to understand from the close of your book that you are a greater liar than Baudolino?
Umberto Eco: [Laughs.] The whole book plays upon the uncertainty of whether Baudolino tells the truth or not. Niketas doesn’t understand whether Baudolino is telling a real story or not, and — except for those few moments when the author tells the story — the book is Baudolino’s story. The story is about ambiguity. After all, Baudolino’s stories begin as his own inventions, but they become true. So, I wanted to celebrate the great function of every narrator, which is to tell something that didn’t exist before the telling. It is a celebration of the author but also a celebration, an exultation of the reader.
How do your novels fit in with your academic work?
UE: I enjoy the idea of narrating, and you can say that this is a sort of escape from my scholarly work. But I satisfy my taste for narration, for being a storyteller, when writing my scholarly books, too, because a scholarly book is indeed the story of research. I think that every great book of philosophy is an intellectual story. You don’t read to find out that the guilty one was the butler, but, reading, you ask yourself, “Who made this? Where are these ideas coming from? Who is responsible?” So, there is a narrative aspect also in the scholarly writing.
How do you explain semiotics to people who have no idea what that is?
UE: Usually I don’t: I ask them to follow two or three years of courses at my university. [Laughs.] But I can explain it in a very, very, very simple — maybe simpleton — way. We are communicating animals, yes? We communicate not only by words, but by a quantity of other external signs: images, gestures, the movement of our face, and so forth. Human life is filled with signs in the technical sense of the term. Everything you produce in order to tell about something else is a sign. Semiotics is interested in looking at all those activities in order to see if there is a common root. In a sense, it is interested in the most human aspect of human beings.
In a New Yorker review written when The Island of the Day Before was published, the reviewer mentions that the only things left out of that book were the Holy Grail and the Shroud of Turin. Were you consciously attempting to rectify these omissions in Baudolino?
UE: [Laughs.] You know, the Holy Grail turns up everywhere. It is the symbol for something we are looking for without finding it. If you want, then, even in The Island of the Day Before there was a Holy Grail: It was the island that couldn’t be reached, it was the woman who got lost. The Holy Grail is the metaphor for an unending desire. In Baudolino I was obliged to introduce the real Grail because Baudolino lived exactly in the moment in which the first stories about the Grail were written. As a matter of fact, the very, very smart reader with a strong academic background will notice that two of Baudolino’s friends are called Boron and Kyot. Robert de Boron wrote one of the first stories of the Holy Grail. Kyot allegedly suggested to Wolfram von Eschenbach that he write Parzival, with the story of the Grail. So, once again, Baudolino invented everything: He suggested to two of his friends that they go back and tell their story. Those two people had to exist somewhere, so I simply made them exist in the milieu of Baudolino. It’s not forbidden.
Is there anything in this novel, any reference or quotation or allusion that you expect to always remain your secret, that no reader will ever find?
UE: Well, many great painters of the past when depicting a crowd of people painted individuals with their own face or the faces of some of their friends. Sometimes we have discovered these faces, sometimes not. But this doesn’t change our attitude toward the painting. We can appreciate the painting and find it beautiful even though we don’t recognize this sort of secret thing. Well, my novels are stuffed with secret things, and most of them are known only to me. [Laughs.]
When Niketas discovers Baudolino’s gift for languages, he worries that anyone who can speak in so many voices may not have a soul. Does it make you anxious to know that so many people read your novels not in Italian, but in translation?
UE: You know, I am just finishing a book on translation, in which I mainly speak of my personal experience with my translators. I can tell you that you can collaborate with your translator not only when you know the foreign language — which, in my case, is true with English, French, Spanish, a little German — but even when working with an unknown language if the translator is intelligent and brilliant. If she has the soul of her language, you can discuss, chat with the translator, and look together for solutions to any problems. Now, I cannot say this happens with all my translations — not the Arabic translations of my novels or, I don’t know, Estonian translations. But for many of my translations I have worked together with the translator and so I feel that even the translation is my own work. I feel confident. You understand?
Baudolino is able to speak every language. This is not just my dream, but the dream of humanity. Ever since the fall of the Babel Tower, when all the languages were mixed up and multiplied, people have dreamed of finding an aboriginal or common language. So, Baudolino is our ideal of being able to communicate. It was also a dirty trick on my part. Baudolino travels all around the world, and I couldn’t make people speak in their different languages. It was impossible — I would have had to use subtitles like in movies — so I was obliged to make Baudolino able to learn rapidly every language.
Do you think that novels would exist in paradise or are they a symptom of our fallen state? Would fiction exist in the perfect kingdom of Prester John, or is it only necessary because we don’t have perfect understanding, because we lack that perfect, aboriginal language?
UE: Well, I can tell you that if there was only a single language for all humanity, we wouldn’t have all the stories we have. Every culture, every civilization, every language is able to invent different stories, to look at the world from a different point of view. That is the great advantage to having many languages: many different stories.
This interview was conducted in October of 2002.