Umberto Eco at the British Library

London, November 8th at the British Library’s Conference Centre, Professore Umberto Eco presents Numero Zero and talks to the audience about literature, ethics in journalism and contemporary issues that are ubiquitous in the media.

It’s Sunday afternoon and we’ve just eaten a quick meal in the tube station at Charing’s Cross. We’re heading to the British Library’s Conference Centre to hear the communication of the Academic, essayist and novelist Umberto Eco, buy his new (and autographed) book, and if possible, take a few photos to post in the Facebook or one of my blogs.

The sky is grey and a soft rain is falling over our shoulders whilst we’re eating our lunch in front of the Library and  appreciating an outdoor exhibition of satirical panels alluding to the classical and renascentist theatre, watching the histrionic, dramatic postures and attitudes of three young Italian tourists posing and taking photos in front of each panel. It’s two o’clock. The Centre is now opening and we would really appreciate finding a good place in one of the front rows. As soon as we e finish our sandwiches, we’ll get into the conference room. The right wing in the third row seems to suit us, combining discretion and a good visibility to the stage.

Il Professore comes into the auditory and climbs a few steps with some difficulty aided by his walking stick and by John Mullan, the interviewer. As soon as he starts chatting, replying to Mullan, one can’t help noticing the slightly dark humour, the sharp irony of the discourse and the extraordinary refreshing sarcasm directed towards himself which immediately rips of any trace of pedantry. An ability that fits perfectly in one of the most intelligent and cultivated men of our times.

Mr. Eco spoke essentially about the new book, a first person narrative, and about its protagonist: a journalist named Colonna (curiously, the name of one of the main rivals of pope Alexander VI and of the whole Borgia family), a name that makes his readers realize at once that this one is a character who is specifically and strategically conceived to defy the highest powers in the media. Colonna writes for a fake journal called “Domani” (Tomorrow). The author emphasizes that “this is a journal that doesn’t exist”, a fiction. And it could never exist in the real world because “it’s a “fake”; I am always interested in the truth in fakes. So, I look for books that are wrong. (…) I’m a philosopher – I only write novels at the weekend – and as a philosopher I’m always interested in Truth. I look for Ptolomeo and not Galileo (because Galileo was right).”

Reality is also an issue that obsesses Professore Eco in his work as philosopher and writer, especially because it always appears much more incredible and sometimes more surrealistic than the fictive plot: “Reality is fascinating because it is stranger than fiction”. The example given by Mr. Eco that illustrates this fact is an episode from The Island of the day before in which Galileo builds a strange machine that he sells afterwards to the Netherlands and that will be used by Copernicus to build is model of the universe, to show how can a complicated and factual story contain more truth than a total fiction.

Il Professore classifies his protagonist from Numero Zero, Colonna, as a total loser:

«Losers are the ones who feed the Literature, because they are so much more interesting than winners. Winners are usually stupid. Especially because they always win by chance. All Literature is about losers.»

And he reminds us of Dostoievky and Kafkas’s protagonists, Flaubert’s traginal and pathetic Madame Bovary or even Musil’s Man without qualities.

Also, every Umberto Eco’s protagonists have names that immediately label them as “fake”, starting with the protagonist of his first novel The Name of the Rose, William of Baskerville, until his latter, Colonna, from the brand new Numero Zero. And all of them are a bit paranoid within the construction of their conspiracy theories and have a special fascination for plots, a characteristic they share with their author. Therefore, “all the paranoids persecute me” (laughter).

Speaking about female characters in his novels Mr. Eco emphasizes the importance of Maya as the most interesting and the most intelligent one from this book, Numero Zero. And she is also the unique female character. But this is something that also happens in some of his previous novel like The Foucault’s Pendulum:

«The one and only positive character is Maya. And the only reason she stays with the protagonist in the end of the story is because I had to give him something of real value for not to make him a complete loser.»

About is the image of Italy and the Italians projected abroad, he simply won’t hesitate saying:

« We were always a people of daggers and poisons. But there are other people of daggers and poisons. And even with kings that kill their own wives.» (massive laughter in the room with the allusion to the execution of Anne Boleyn and Kathryn Howard by the King Henry VIII).

With the audience, Professore Eco spoke about the cynical vision of contemporary journalism by his character, Colonna, and the twisting of the goal of providing information to the audience in the media of our times; the problems of translation that a writer must face by emphasizing his personal commitment in working close to his translators in every language to which Mr. Eco’s original versions are of his books are translated. Il Professore shows a special concern with the effect of the discourse and its impact on the reader, especially when the original text contains quotations in other languages, including the ones that are not already spoken. The pragmatic aspect of language and the preoccupation of being as close and faithful to the original discourse as possible is something that worries him as a writer. The most problematic face of this issue is when a character is speaking in any other language than its own and the book has to be translated into that very same “foreign” (to the character) language. He gives the example of the translation of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” from Russian to French. Referring himself to Tolstoy’s characters as French speakers when the book was firstly translated to the French language he says: “their French was so bad that French people could perfectly understand when their speech was a quotation from the original” (laughter). John Mullan also mentioned Louis de Bernières’s “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin” when one of the character’s has to speak Greek in the contemporary age and uses the ancient Greek to speak with the locals: for English people understand its contents and the strangeness modern Greeks would feel if somebody would speak the Greek of the times of Pericles or Alexander, the author used Old Medieval English.

One of the last issues that were brought to de debate, less than a week before the terrorist attacks in Paris, was Europe and the emergency of new fascisms which always awakes this unsettling sensation of deja vu in the Philosopher..

The room was full, every single ticket was sold for that event, weeks before. Giving a quick wide gaze trough the audience, one could easily realize the participants came from several parts of Europe if not the world. The profusion of languages heard during the brief intervals in the conversation with the audience and in the end were so many that one could feel herself like being in the ancient Babel. And everyone showed the same pleasure in being there, speaking about books, life, humankind and its future. Language was no obstacle. And the most amazing thing was realizing that nothing is more effective in destroying walls, eliminating frontiers than Culture, Art, the promotion of free-thinking, and most of all, the Literature. Thank you so much, Professore Eco.


London, November 27th 2015

Cláudia de Sousa Dias


A PostScript as a small epilogue:

After the conference and the debate we decided to join the queue to buy the book that should the be signed by the author. However, the stock was running out, disappearing  as fast as water down the shower drain, since each person was buying two, three or even four books at the time, to take away as gifts. The last book was sold before the eyes of the person who was just before me. As soon as she approached the table, the saleswoman informed her the stock was over for that venue and there were no more books. The girl felt so miserable (and so did I, to tell you the truth) that she couldn’t help turning back to me and say: “Well, I guess were are the losers, aren’t we?”.

I think she’s right. We are losers. Though (unfortunately) not Umberto Eco’s literary characters.












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