Umberto Eco: Miracles in Milan

Umberto Eco has written a novel - his last, he says - that works magic with his childhood in Fascist Italy. Shaun Whiteside finds out the secrets of his sorcery
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The Independent Culture

The clue is in the sitting-room. Outside the windows of the apartment in central Milan that Umberto Eco shares with his wife Renate, swallows wheel above the city's imposing castle. Inside, a long, book-lined corridor leads from the sitting room to a library that wouldn't disgrace a small university. The salone itself is an airy, elegant jumble of semi-abstract paintings, musical instruments, pop-art assemblages and, notably, two drawings by a four-year-old grandchild, showing a jolly-looking round man with a very conspicuous navel.

The centrepiece stands next to a tall alabaster sculpture: a vitrine displaying a selection of children's books from the Twenties and Thirties. There is a copy of Pinocchio with rather forbidding black-and-blue illustrations, colourful storybooks, an edition of Little Lord Fauntleroy and, in the middle, resting on a Fascist song-book, a card bearing a photograph of a beaming ten-year-old. This is Eco's membership card for the Balilla, Mussolini's Fascist youth group.

Umberto Eco comes in, smartly dressed, still beaming, paunchy but spry, and looking an awful lot younger than his 73 years. He guides me through the books, some saved from his childhood collection, others re-acquired at flea markets. These are the images at the core of his new and rather wonderful novel.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (translated by Geoffrey Brock; Secker & Warburg, £17.99) may come as a surprise to readers accustomed to Eco's fictional explorations of the medieval mind: the out-of-nowhere global bestseller The Name of the Rose; the blood-and-grail conspiracy theories of Foucault's Pendulum; the pleasingly picaresque Baudolino. His new novel tells the story of Yambo (Giambattista), an antiquarian book-dealer who suffers severe memory-loss. While he can remember every book he has ever read, he is unable to recognise his wife and daughters. Withdrawing to the attic of his home between Milan and Turin, he re-acquires a kind of impersonal, generational memory by studying old books, record covers, stamps and magazines, beautifully reproduced within the text.

As his personal memory begins to return, his quest leads him in pursuit of a lost love from his schooldays. In a splendidly kitsch apotheosis he is guided by Queen Loana and Mandrake the Magician up a cartoon-book white staircase based, Eco explains, on the "Stairway to Paradise" sequence from Vincente Minnelli's An American in Paris. It's a cabinet of childhood curiosities that gives way to a dream of death. And at its heart is a memory of growing up in Mussolini's Italy.

As Renate brings coffee and lemon peel (a Neapolitan tradition, she remarks, reintroduced to the rest of Italy by returning Americans), I ask her husband if he is, as he seems, nostalgic for the Fascist past. Eco plays with the dummy cigarette he uses since he gave up smoking. "You have nostalgia even for the most tragic experiences of your childhood. I can judge Fascism historically for what it was. But it was my childhood. So often with some friends, all left-oriented people, after a party, we would all sing some of the Fascist songs." Really? The great left-liberal intellectual singing "Per l'Italia e per il Duce eja, eja, eja, alalà?". "We couldn't do that openly," he says, "because we would have been considered Fascists, in the same way even today I can't wear a black shirt." He points to mine. It's dark blue, I say, and make a note never to wear a dark shirt in Italy again.

"With my intimate friends after midnight, sometimes, we sang those songs, because it was our childhood. So I like to retrieve and evoke those experiences, and at the same time, implicitly, I want to judge them. And there's something I discovered in writing the book. It was what I define as the schizophrenia of our education. On one side we had all the official propaganda, and on the other side we had American comic books, radio songs.

"Fellini said, 'If we didn't become complete idiots, it's a miracle.' And I think if they didn't become complete idiots it's just because of this schizophrenia, this balance, that for 50 per cent of Italians produced people like me, while the other 50 per cent produced the people presently in government." He chuckles, as he does frequently, but - as always when referring to the state of Italian politics - there's a ruefulness to the laughter.

Eco's childhood was spent in the Piedmontese town of Alessandria, home of the Borsalino hat. "It was a company town. Everybody who worked for the company had to wear the hat. So people might have been from modest economic conditions, but they all wore beautiful hats." His father was an accountant, his mother had been a typist. "In her youth she was a secretary to a member of parliament, a liberal, a democrat, and when Mussolini had his march on Rome, this man who was clearly not a Fascist said, with the present situation maybe the country needs a man who can bring some order. So the dictatorship began."

In Queen Loana, the dictatorship is always seen from a child's perspective. It might form an interesting pendant to Philip Roth's The Plot Against America - with the major difference that Roth had to make it up. "It's a nightmare, but an invented nightmare," he says of Roth's book. "He didn't have the real everyday pressure of the dictatorial propaganda. And also he's telling the story of a family which is against what was happening." Like most Italians, "our family was in a sort of no-man's-land. They were not Fascist, but they were not anti-Fascist either. They accepted this form of government as though it were a natural event."

In 1942, the ten-year-old Eco won first prize in a competition for young Italian Fascists, with an essay entitled "Should we die for the glory of Mussolini and the immortal destiny of Italy?" Yes, we should, he answered. "Children are whores," he says bluntly. "They are ready to repeat what they see on the TV screen, and it was the same with us". So did he believe it when he was writing it? "I don't know. I don't remember. I remember having been completely confused the morning when I woke up and I said to myself, do I really love the Duce?... So it means that we had doubts."

Yet nine months later, both in reality and at the novel's turning-point, another essay is written, "The Unbreakable Glass", in which the old certainties are shattered. Then comes 1943, the defeat of Fascism and the civil war. Although the young Eco witnessed shoot-outs between partisans and blackshirts, he describes a similar event in this novel as "an invention". After this, the story moves into adolescent yearning and then to the final, fatal embrace of Queen Loana.

There's an elegiac feeling about the book. "When you get older, you return in some way to your roots," he says. "It even happens that I never spoke my dialect because I belonged to a petit-bourgeois family that spoke Italian with the children. For some mysterious reason I can speak it now... It's the announcement of the coming of death." He laughs. This will be his last novel, he says. "Five is enough."

Of the others, Foucault's Pendulum in particular seems uncannily prescient. What does Eco make of the Dan Brown phenomenon? "I wrote the story of Dan Brown!" he erupts. "I wrote Dan Brown's biography!" He laughs again. "I even used the stuff about Christ and Mary Magdalen, because it was easy to find in any bookstore. Dan Brown was able to use old material and to take it seriously, instead of telling a grotesque story as I did." The Da Vinci Code is very well done, he admits, but it's a fake based on a fake based on a fake. "Still, there are some fakes that continue to live because they have some archetypal attraction." He takes great delight in pointing out that if the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail sue Brown for plagiarism as threatened, they will first have to demonstrate that their book is untrue.

The new novel, meanwhile, has so far met with unexpected resonance abroad, even though Eco had feared it might be of purely local interest. "Perhaps," he reflects, "I've created some sort of exotic story." Perhaps he has made the recent past every bit as exotic as the depths of the Middle Ages. Queen Loana feels like a swansong, but I can't help wondering if there isn't just a little more to come.

Biography: Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco was born in Piedmont, northern Italy, in 1932, one of 13 children. His career as a world-renowned writer and thinker began when he ditched law studies at Turin University for medieval philosophy and wrote a thesis on the aesthetics of St Thomas Aquinas. Already a publisher's editor and a newspaper columnist, he became an academic in Florence and Milan and, in 1971, the first professor of semiotics at Bologna University. He has taught there ever since. His many scholarly books include The Open Work (1962), A Theory of Semiotics (1976) and, most recently, On Beauty (2003). His five novels are The Name of the Rose (1980), which has sold more than 10m. copies; Foucault's Pendulum (1988); The Island of the Day Before (1994); Baudolino (2000), and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, published in the UK this week. Eco lives with his wife, Renate, in a converted hotel in central Milan.