Master of Semiotic Thrillers

By Erica E. Goode

US News & World Report, November 11, 1989

Conversation: Italian philosopher Umberto Eco surprised the literary world with a best-selling medieval mystery in 1983. Now he's back with another rich and layered tale.

What audience do you have in mind when you write your books?

Every author, even a writer of Harlequin novels, foresees two readers, though they may both be the same person. The first is the one I call the "naïve" reader, the one who reads to know what happens. Then there is the "critical" reader, who goes backwards or rereads, though not necessarily physically, to see how the book convinced him as a naïve reader. Every act of reading involves these two levels, and once there are two there can be 2,000. You have a book like Joyce's Finnegans Wake, that a reader can reread 10,000 times and every time discover a new connection, a new level. Then there are books that try to reduce this plurality of levels -- a phone book reduces it to the minimum -- and books that play upon the possibility of producing many levels. My pleasure in writing a novel is to produce these levels. In this book, there are ultraviolet innuendoes and allusions that probably are clear only to me. And then sometimes I meet somebody who says, "I discovered that connection." But nobody has discovered that one of the "files" in Foucault's Pendulum is a novel written by Benito Mussolini, because it is not literally quoted but interwoven with the whole damn thing. That's a pleasure for me. Belbo, a character in Pendulum, is playing with literary memories and quotes Mussolini, who in his youth wrote a novel taking place in a monastery with an evil monk. In The Name of the Rose, the first 50 or 70 pages were difficult in order to give the reader the necessary exercise. He had to learn how to breathe in order to start mountain climbing. In this new book, I open with a Hebrew quotation nobody is able to understand. This is in order to say, "O.K., do you want to play this game? You are my friend, and we go. Otherwise, too bad for me or for you." I think it is untrue that my books are impenetrable. On the contrary, I think I am a sort of great vulgarizer. I put down certain difficult stuff, but I give my readers clues to understand what this kind of stuff is.

You once said that you were surprised that your books sold so widely. Why are they so popular, do you think?

There are at least 12 explanations, but none of them is accepted. Yet those who ask this question, I think, are thinking of the book and not of the public. The public has changed enormously in the last two decades. You see boys going into the bookstore and buying Proust. They want a difficult experience. They have had enough of Yogi Bear or "Dallas" or Harold Robbins -- there is plenty of easy, precooked experience available. The most interesting reactions I get from readers in the United States don't come from New York or San Francisco but from the Midwest or from the mountains. They were happy to be involved in a complex reading experience that demanded a certain level of effort and that gives, it seems, a certain reward.

What was the genesis of Foucault's Pendulum?

Immediately after finishing The Name of the Rose, my question was: Was this an exceptional episode of my life or would I be able to write another novel? I thought that probably all the images that obsessed my mind were in that book. So if I were to write another novel, what would it be about? And I thought, O.K., there are two images that were important in my life. One was the pendulum, which I saw for the first time in 1952. I remember that I was fascinated. And many other times I came back to see it, and I talked about it with certain scientists. The other was the story of the boy it the cemetery with a trumpet. That really happened to me in 1945, and I told his story many times. The question was: What is the connection between those incidents? If they were so important to me, I thought, it means that there is a connection. And I started to look for a connection, and that was the start.

Why is the notion of conspiracy and plotting so important to Foucault's Pendulum?

In some ways, my novel is the story of paranoia, interpretive paranoia. I have always been fascinated by the idea of conspiracy, which doesn't hold only in the political world but also sometimes in literary interpretation. There are forms of hermeneutics, for example, that try to find a secret meaning in a text. So we have always the obsession for a supplement of meaning that can lead to pure paranoia or to intolerance. That's why the early Christians were thrown to the lions; the Roman empire needed to find a conspiracy in order to justify certain social troubles. The occult world is the great theatre of conspiratorial paranoia. In fact, I could have written this novel without all the occult stuff. I could have set it up -- I don't know -- among some physicists looking for cold fusion or in a philological congress of people trying to interpret a Latin manuscript. Obviously, the occult was narratively more exciting, and I was for a long time fascinated by those things. But you can have a conspiracy syndrome anywhere. I am not saying that there are no plans, that there are no secret conspiracies. But it's not by chance that every dictatorship, when it cannot face a difficult internal situation, looks for an external enemy who is responsible. I am terrorized and frightened by this conspiracy syndrome. Somebody said to me,"But you are a semiotician, you are a critic! You are always trying to uncover, to unmask meaning." True, but I am not against the act of interpretation. I am against the paranoia of interpretation, which is different.

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