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"I am a professor who writes novels on Sundays"

Mukund Padmanabhan

Umberto Eco on his foray into fiction, the success of his first novel, his love for narratives, his views on translation and more...

— PHOTO: T. Singaravelou

Umberto Eco... "I work in empty spaces."

Literary fiction, academic texts, essays, children's books, newspaper articles — Umberto Eco's written output is staggeringly large and wide-ranging. A professor at the University of Bologna in Italy, Eco had already acquired a formidable reputation as a scholar for his ideas on semiotics (the study of signs), literary interpretation, and medieval aesthetics before he turned to writing fiction. In 1980, he acquired the equivalent of intellectual superstardom with the publication of The Name of the Rose, which sold more than 10 million copies. The novel, which weaves philosophical debates, theological disputes, and scientific discourse into a detective yarn set in a 14th century Italian abbey, was the beginning of further forays into fiction — most notably, Foucault's Pendulum, a complex cerebral story about a hoax that becomes true, resulting in the conspirators getting caught in a fiction that has become reality.

With over 30 honorary doctorates and a string of literary and academic awards, Eco has the reputation of being one of the world's foremost intellectuals. He was recently in Pondicherry for a conference on "Cultures of Knowledge," which was held at the French Institute. Excerpts from a freewheeling interview:

The English novelist and academic David Lodge once remarked: "I can't understand how one man can do all the things he [Eco] does."

Umberto Eco: Maybe I give the impression of doing many things. But in the end, I am convinced I am always doing the same thing.

Which is?

Aah, now that is more difficult to explain. I have some philosophical interests and I pursue them through my academic work and my novels. Even my books for children are about non-violence and peace...you see, the same bunch of ethical, philosophical interests.

And then I have a secret. Did you know what will happen if you eliminate the empty spaces from the universe, eliminate the empty spaces in all the atoms? The universe will become as big as my fist.

Similarly, we have a lot of empty spaces in our lives. I call them interstices. Say you are coming over to my place. You are in an elevator and while you are coming up, I am waiting for you. This is an interstice, an empty space. I work in empty spaces. While waiting for your elevator to come up from the first to the third floor, I have already written an article! (Laughs).

Not everyone can do that of course. Your non-fictional writing, your scholarly work has a certain playful and personal quality about it. It is a marked departure from a regular academic style — which is invariably depersonalised and often dry and boring. Have you consciously adopted an informal approach or is it something that just came naturally to you?

When I presented my first doctoral dissertation in Italy, one of the Professors said: "Scholars learn a lot of a certain subject, then they make a lot of false hypotheses, then they correct them and at the end, they put the conclusions. You, on the contrary, told the story of your research. Even including your trials and errors." At the same time, he recognised I was right and went on to publish my dissertation as a book, which meant he appreciated it.

At that point, at the age of 22, I understood scholarly books should be written the way I had done — by telling the story of the research. This is why my essays always have a narrative aspect. And this is why probably I started writing narratives [novels] so late — at the age of 50, more or less.

I remember that my dear friend Roland Barthes was always frustrated that he was an essayist and not a novelist. He wanted to do creative writing one day or another but he died before he could do so. I never felt this kind of frustration. I started writing novels by accident. I had nothing to do one day and so I started. Novels probably satisfied my taste for narration.

Talking about novels, from famous academic you went on to becoming spectacularly famous after the publication of The Name of the Rose. You've written five novels against many more scholarly works of non-fiction, at least more than 20 of them...

Over 40.

Over 40. Among them a seminal piece of work on semiotics. But ask most people about Umberto Eco and they will say, "Oh, he's the novelist." Does that bother you?

Yes. Because I consider myself a university professor who writes novels on Sundays. It's not a joke. I participate in academic conferences and not meetings of Pen Clubs and writers. I identify myself with the academic community.

But okay, if they [most people] have read only the novels... (laughs and shrugs). I know that by writing novels, I reach a larger audience. I cannot expect to have one million readers with stuff on semiotics.

Which brings me to my next question. The Name of the Rose is a very serious novel. It's a detective yarn at one level but it also delves into metaphysics, theology, and medieval history. Yet it enjoyed a huge mass audience. Were you puzzled at all by this?

No. Journalists are puzzled. And sometimes publishers. And this is because journalists and publishers believe that people like trash and don't like difficult reading experiences. Consider there are six billion people in this planet. The Name of the Rose sold between 10 and 15 million copies. So in a way I reached only a small percentage of readers. But it is exactly these kinds of readers who don't want easy experiences. Or at least don't always want this. I myself, at 9 pm after dinner, watch television and want to see either `Miami Vice' or `Emergency Room'. I enjoy it and I need it. But not all day.

Could the huge success of the novel have anything to do with the fact that it dealt with a period of medieval history that...

That's possible. But let me tell you another story, because I often tell stories like a Chinese wise man. My American publisher said while she loved my book, she didn't expect to sell more than 3,000 copies in a country where nobody has seen a cathedral or studies Latin. So I was given an advance for 3,000 copies, but in the end it sold two or three million in the U.S.

A lot of books have been written about the medieval past far before mine. I think the success of the book is a mystery. Nobody can predict it. I think if I had written The Name of the Rose ten years earlier or ten years later, it wouldn't have been the same. Why it worked at that time is a mystery.

What did you think about the film [directed by Jean Jacques Annaud and starring Sean Connery]? Why weren't you happy with it?

I expected the film to be different. My novel is a kind of club sandwich — lettuce, tomato, cheese...

Different layers of meaning?

Yes. A film cannot select all the layers. It has to make do with jambon or cheese... I didn't react like authors who, immediately after the film is made, say it is not at all like my book. But after that experience, I asked my publisher not to sell the rights of the novel to cinema. I did this because I discovered that 80 per cent of readers read the book after the movie. And that is very painful for a novelist.

But surely this also means greater success, greater remuneration?

Yes. But it is embarrassing to know that somebody else has already told the reader that the novel should be read in a particular way. That he should imagine the face of a character in a particular way. The only enviable position is that of Homer's who had the film made more than 2000 years after the book (laughs).

So this is why Stanley Kubrick never got to make Foucault's Pendulum?

Since I had laid down a general rule, the publisher said no. Then Stanley Kubrick died. But it may have been a great movie (laughs).

Talking about Foucault's Pendulum, there is a sense in which you did the Da Vinci Code before Dan Brown did. Of course, you did it as a myth that takes on a strange reality and he did it as it was historical truth.

I told Dan Brown's story. My characters are his. I gave the broad picture of this kind of literature.

How has your latest novel fared? The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

It was published this June in Great Britain and America. It is set in the 1930s and 40s in Italy during the Fascist period and about a man who loses his biographical memory while retaining his semantic one. The kind of person who knows everything about Shakespeare but nothing about himself, the fact that he is married or has two daughters. There are black holes relating to the years of his childhood. It is about how the history of Italy and his own personal history are reconstructed through schoolbooks, comic books, newspapers and how the past is retrieved through this. It is a reconstruction of a personal soul not by exploring inside [the mind] but through a process of exploring objects.

In your lecture today [titled `Rasa and Taste: a difficult synonymy' at a seminar in the French Institute], you talked of translation as a negotiable issue. You stressed the fact that it works. Example: there may be 99 versions of the Bible but everyone agrees and understands that Jesus died after he was nailed to a cross. It is a position of great practicality but...

There are many, many philosophical essays that say translation is impossible. But all those essays are translated in various languages and many people learn through these translated essays that translation is impossible.

But don't the issues of translation and trans-cultural understanding in philosophy also have to do with questions of the perception of reality and whether this differs? How does a purely pragmatic position square up with this? For instance, philosophy texts which talk of the difficulty of translation sometimes cite the example of the American Indian tribe that have 16 or more terms for rain...

Yes. And that some others have zero terms for snow. But I don't think people are so stupid that when we speak of snow, they don't know what we are talking about. We indicate, we show things. Interacting is not only interaction through words.

So is it fair to say that you believe that philosophical debates on translation and cultural incommensurability are much too abstract, too removed from reality. And that you need a more pragmatic, a more sociological view?

No, no. I believe that mine is the right philosophical attitude. The kind of reflections in analytical philosophy, in order to be supposedly scientific, don't analyse the real common language but only laboratory situations. For instance, the philosopher [Saul] Kripke illustrates an entire discussion on translation of proper names with the case of a certain Pierre who, being French, knew London as Londra. He was convinced that Londra was a beautiful city. He visited London without realising that it was Londra and wrote that London is an ugly city. Pierre is an idiot or a laboratory fiction. Human beings are not like that. You cannot create a philosophical discourse on the behaviour of a mad person.

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