Umberto Eco: 'People are tired of simple things. They want to be challenged'
'I am reaching the end of my ordeal," says Umberto Eco when we meet. Happily, I don't take this personally. Eco – philosopher, semiotician, novelist, bibliophile and all-round brainbox – has been on a 20-day global tour to promote his new novel, The Prague Cemetery, and says at times he has barely known what city he was in.
Eco, who will be 80 in January, doesn't look too bad for his ordeal. His rotundity means he sits a little awkwardly in his chair, but he is a lively, playful interviewee, chewing on a small cigar throughout. He gave up smoking them eight years ago, but still likes to have one in his mouth and hopes some of the nicotine gets through. He has a rasping voice and an idiosyncratic take on English. The conversation occasionally breaks down when I use expressions he doesn't quite grasp. He misunderstands when I ask him whether The Prague Cemetery is, as some critics have suggested, a "return to form": for him, form is a sporting rather than a literary term.
Anyway, we battle on. The elephant in our cramped little room is that the new book is not a return to form, whether literary or sporting. Set in the second half of the 19th century and following the fortunes of master forger, murderer and general bad egg Simone Simonini, who manages to have a hand in most of the great events of that period (Italian unification, Franco-Prussian war, Paris Commune, Dreyfus affair), it is a wearying read. In English at least. Perhaps it sparkles in Italian.
Whether or not it is a return to form, it is certainly a return to Eco's favourite subject – conspiracies. Simonini is presented as the originator of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the early 20th-century fake text that purported to detail a Jewish conspiracy aimed at world domination. Following its publication in Russia in 1903, it was widely read and believed, despite being shown to have been plagiarised from fictional sources. Hitler quoted it extensively, and even now its poison circulates. Eco pieces together what little is known of the origins of the text, and offers Simonini, an amoral Italian living in Paris, as the originator of the most toxic of all forgeries.
Conspiracies in general, and the Protocols in particular, have been recurrent themes in Eco's work, notably in his second novel, Foucault's Pendulum, where as a joke three nondescript book editors concoct a grand conspiracy that comes to take over their lives. Why do the Protocols preoccupy him? "As a scholar I am interested in the philosophy of language, semiotics, call it what you want, and one of the main features of the human language is the possibility of lying. A dog doesn't lie. When it barks, it means there is somebody outside." Animals do not lie; human beings do. "From lies to forgeries the step is not so long, and I have written technical essays on the logic of forgeries and on the influence of forgeries on history. The most famous and terrible of those forgeries is the Protocols."
Eco says it is not conspiracies that attract him, but the paranoia that allows them to flourish. "There are many small conspiracies, and most of them are exposed," he says. "But the paranoia of the universal conspiracy is more powerful because it is everlasting. You can never discover it because you don't know who is there. It is a psychological temptation of our species. Karl Popper wrote a beautiful essay on that, in which he said it started with Homer. Everything that happens in Troy was plotted the day before on the top of Olympus by the gods. It's a way not to feel responsible for something. That's why dictatorships use the notion of universal conspiracy as a weapon. For the first 10 years of my life I was educated by fascists at school, and they used a universal conspiracy – that you, the Englishman, the Jews and the capitalists were plotting against the poor Italian people. For Hitler it was the same. And Berlusconi has spent all his electoral campaigns speaking of the double conspiracy of the judges and the communists. There are no more communists around, even if you look for them with a lamp, but for Berlusconi they were there trying to take over." ....