A conversation with Umberto Eco, whose new novel imagines one of the most anti-Semitic characters in fiction
I love the novels of the late José Saramago, and I remember listening to him talk about the Israeli Nazis and this and that. And I’m listening, and I think, here’s this extremely talented novelist who understands human psychology in a deep way and writes great books. And here he’s spouting this crude insanity.
You know, Saramago was against every religion. He had a very anarchist spirit. I don’t remember his remarks, but I remember he was an old communist. He was a nice person.
You feel you know a person through his books. You can feel the spirit of a person. And then to hear this stuff so at odds with the person that I knew very well from my reading was a shock. But the reading wasn’t a mistake, either.
We have always to make a distinction between texts and authors. Take Ezra Pound. He was really a fascist in the political space. But he was simply an anarchist who was against the accumulation of money. And living in Italy at that time, he had the impression that fascism was good. But if you read the poetry of Ezra Pound without knowing what he did, he’s a great poet, and you have to make a sharp distinction. One can be a great poet and be politically stupid. With Céline it is very difficult to make a distinction between he and his work.
I like Céline. I love Journey to the End of Night. I don’t like the anti-Semitic tracts.
He’s a great writer. But some of his texts are really racist. You cannot say he was a racist in his private life and these texts are not—no, no. There is a strict link there. So, you have to be very well-balanced and prudent as a critic to appreciate a writer in spite of his positions. It’s very easy to say that Mein Kampf is badly written. OK. No problem.
Céline is not badly written. And the anti-Semitism really is part of his work. Talk to me about being a child in fascist Italy and growing up in school with this sense of the vast democratic-capitalist-Jewish conspiracy targeting your country, and what that felt like.
First of all, it happened until I was 11 years old.
Well, you know the famous Jesuit saying: “Give me a child until he’s 7, I’ll give you the man”?
I couldn’t escape from the fascist education until the age of 11, when there was the fall of the regime, and then I realized that there were many other perspectives in the world. During the fascist education, like everybody else I wrote texts saying that I wanted to die for my country, for the greatness of Italy. I would say it with a certain cynicism. I remember that one day, I was 9 or 10 years, but I asked, “Do I really love Mussolini? Because they say that kids like me love Mussolini. Is it true? Or I am sick?”
You have not seen my book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana? It’s the story of that education, in which the texts that opened me to a different world were the American comic books. “Mickey Mouse: Journalist” told me that there was the problem of the freedom of the press. He was fighting for the freedom of the press—a concept that was absolutely nonexistent in fascist Italy. Flash Gordon was fighting against a ruler, for freedom. So, I was educated by fascist schoolbooks obviously, but also by the counter-literature not controlled by the censor, namely, comic books.
Did you know any Jews growing up?
No. Only just on the verge of my 11 years, playing with some friends on the streets. At that time, it was possible to play on the streets of the city because there was a car passing through every 10 minutes. People were very well-dressed, taking away the weeds, cleaning the sidewalks. And one of them talked with me. He said, “You are the young Eco. Tell my best to your father because he knows me. I am Mr. Taverno.” In Italy, instead of picking them and sending them to camps, they humiliated them, obliging them to spend time in manual works. And so at that time, I started to see that there were some people who were Jews. Yes, it could’ve happened that in the family they said of somebody, “They are Jews.” But they said it as they would say, “He’s from Turin. He’s not from Alessandria.” So, no, there was no real perception of the difference. It was only at the end of the war that I understood the whole story.
Did you go to church as a child?
Yes. I was a fervent Catholic, and I belonged to the national organizations, even becoming one of the national leaders, until the age of 21, 22. Then there was a first political collapse, because we were the young Catholics, very left-oriented. Then I was starting to study the Middle Ages, and reading Thomas Aquinas. In this process of education, there was a process of disconnection. OK. But I in a way remained sentimentally linked to that world.
It wasn’t by chance I wrote The Name of the Rose like that, because it was the world of my youth. For the same reasons, when I am with faithful friends of my age, after midnight in the countryside, we start singing the fascist hymns because they were those that we sang in the school. There’s a sort of nostalgia. So, secretly, we remain linked to certain melodies.
It’s a terrible thing, right? Because in the end it’s a childhood song, no matter what else it meant.
We sang the fascist hymns and the Catholic songs. That was our childhood.
When I go to churches now in Europe, like a good American tourist, one of the things that’s most striking is that except for other tourists like me and five old ladies, they’re empty. You belong to the last generation of Europeans to grow up in a Christian Europe.
Once Chesterton said—Chesterton was a Catholic—“When men no longer believe in God, it’s not that they believe in nothing. They believe in everything.” Today there are new sects, New Age, astrology, cyborg mythology. Man is a religious animal. Man cannot accept the idea of dying, so we have to believe in something, to give this sense of survival, of mystery, of something beyond death.
A 2006 Woody Allen film festival in Manhattan screened more than 30 of the New York master’s movies. One writer tried to go to every one of them.