Echoes of the past

A guest at the Jerusalem International Book Fair, renowned Italian author Umberto Eco has just released his latest novel.

Italian author Umberto Eco (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Italian author Umberto Eco
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
‘When you finish a book, it’s like a child,” said celebrated Italian author Umberto Eco at a press conference on Wednesday at the 25th Jerusalem International Book Fair. “It takes two years to take care of it. Just like a child, you have to feed it and polish its ass. By the third year it starts to walk a little, but for those two years you take care of it and you hate it.”
The book Eco is currently taking care of – and which, judging by his extensive comments, he clearly does not hate – is The Cemetery of Prague. This latest novel by the author best known for The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum is a fictional re-imagining of the life of one of the authors of the infamous screed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The novel, which has not yet been translated into English or Hebrew, tells the story of Simone Simoni, a master forger working for several different secret services, raised as a ferocious anti-Semite, who creates the world’s most infamous conspiracy theory.
“It’s a story of a rascal and a spy with many elements of modernity . . . I wrote it before Assange and the WikiLeaks phenomenon, but the logic of secret service was the same during earlier centuries,” he said.
“I find myself in a strange situation being here with a book that has not yet been translated into Hebrew and nobody has read yet. So nobody can criticize it,” said the jovial Eco.
Judging from the affiliations and accents of many at the event, which was co-sponsored by the Institute of Italian Culture, the room was filled with Italians, many of whom clutched copies of Eco’s book. Although it has generated controversy in Italy, no one said at a word against the novel but lined up afterwards to get him to sign their copies.
Among the wide-ranging questions, Eco was asked several times about whether he had been pressured to boycott the Jerusalem Book Fair.
“This is the third time I was asked that today, but nobody was interested in the fact that I came here. Maybe I am not so important,” he said. He also said, “I am against any kind of boycotting. I have written articles in England and Italy about making a boycott of an academic milieu and I have said it is fundamentally racist. It is a form of racism” to boycott a person because of the politics of his government.
When one journalist asked whether he had any criticism to make of the Israeli government, noting that this year’s Jerusalem Prizewinning author, Ian McEwan, had spoken out against several Israeli policies, he said, “I have so much to say against the Italian government that I have no more time to speak against the Israeli government.”
Back in the literary realm, which clearly interested him more, Eco was asked if he has an ideal reader in mind when he writes. “People who say they write only for themselves are liars and despicable people. The only thing you write for yourself is a grocery list that you destroy when you are done. All writing is a form of dialogue. . . I was asked what would I do if I knew the world was going to be destroyed in the morning, and yes, I could stop, but I would write through the night because even if the world is destroyed, there is a chance that in 3,000 years, some aliens will come and they will read what I have written.”
The tech-savvy literary heavyweight, asked how language has changed among younger people in recent years, said, “I’m not so pessimistic about language. . . This generation, simply by acquiring Twitter and Facebook, is able to organize in two weeks a revolution in five countries in a way that their fathers couldn’t even have dreamed of, much less accomplished. Yes, they are writing in a bad SMS language, but something new is happening and we have to revise our theories.”
Asked about how he feels visiting a city with so much literary and historical significance, Eco acknowledged being moved, and said, “It has to respect its vocation. You cannot have a city where the great winds of the three monotheistic religions pass through it and pretend it is a normal city.”