Plots will unfold with grand conspiracies at their centre, where the obscure details of history mingle with the unknown. Those truly directing proceedings will always remain in the shadows and further intrigue is never more than a few pages away.
“I don’t know what the reader expects. I think that Barbara Cartland writes what the readers expect,” he said at a Guardian Live event in London, hosted by UCL head of English John Mullan.
“I think an author should write what the reader does not expect. The problem is not to ask what they need, but to change them … to produce the kind of reader you want for each story.”
In his latest work, Numero Zero, a hack journalist, Colonna, is hired by a property and communications mogul to work on an as yet unpublished newspaper, Domani. Charged with creating a paper that will probably never be published, Colonna and his editors form an agenda to suit their boss, nicknamed “The Commendatore”, who plans to use the paper to blackmail his way into Italy’s political and financial elite through a mix of tabloid innuendo and pseudo-intellectual commentary scandalising the establishment.
Along the way, Collona is made aware of a vast potential conspiracy in which Mussolini – having been replaced by a body double before his execution - survived the fall of his wartime regime and continues to live in exile in Argentina, where he may or may not have been behind various postwar plots to destabilise Italy, such as the kidnapping and assassination of prime minister Aldo Moro in 1978.
“I am a philosopher; I write novels only on the weekends,” said Eco. “As a philosopher I am interested in truth. Since it is very difficult to decide what’s true or not I discovered that it’s easier to arrive at truth through the analysis of fakes.”
“I would say that 50% or more of public opinion is shaped by fakes. We are blackmailed by them,” he said.
Numero Zero also references a shadowy real-world organisation, known as Gladio, which operated in Italy and across Europe during the Cold War as a network of potential underground resistance cells to fight in the event of an invasion by the Soviet bloc.
“Immediately after the second world war, they tried, in order to stop a possible invasion of Europe, to establish a sort of secret society of people who were trained to engage in a partisan war – even some former fascists. Gladio was operating in the whole of Europe and no one knew,” he said.
“In all my novels I use a lot of real facts that were believed to be an invention of mine. In The Island of the Day Before there is a strange machine for observing the satellites of Jupiter that is very comic. It was invented by Galileo and they tried to sell it to the Dutch. It didn’t succeed because it was absolutely crazy, but when you tell it as a story you laugh.”
“Reality is fascinating because it’s more inventive than fiction.”
But what of the existence of conspiracies in the real world? Much of Eco’s work explores the territory where healthy suspicion gives way to paranoia – an impulse which he believes we should guard ourselves against if we are to arrive at the truth.
“I am not denying that conspiracies exist, but the real ones are discovered. The assassination of Julius Caesar was a conspiracy – it was a success, it was well known … the Gunpowder plot was a conspiracy. So the real conspiracies are always discovered. The powerful ones are the ones which do not exist; you cannot demonstrate that they are not there so they continue to flow in the public mind and they can nourish a lot of naïve people.”
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