By Laura Lilli

La Repubblica, September 11, 2000

Eco first announced the name and topic of Baudolino at the Mantova literature festival in an interview with Laura Lilli for Repubblica newspaper.

Con “Baudolino” Eco torna al romanzo – September 11, 2000 La Repubblica. Laura Lilli interviews Eco about his forthcoming novel. (Italian)

Paul Verrocchio was kind enough to translate the Lilli interview into English. He warns that it is a rough translation; if anyone has any corrections, please email them in!

With Baudolino, Eco Returns to Romance Writing

By Laura Lilli

So here we are, 20 years later, again speaking with Umberto Eco about his romance nearing publication. 20 years ago it was The Name of the Rose, the first – and unexpected – romance novel by a scholar. Maybe unique, many thought, frightened. He was also surprised: “It came to me there and then,” he told me. Now it’s Baudolino, romance novel number four, which, after Foucault’s Pendulum (1998) and Island of the Day Before (1994), will be out this November. 500 pages long, it is again published by Bompiani. Eco announced it yesterday at the conclusion of the Mantova literary festival. Usually when speaking about his novels, he is evasive and refuses to anticipate release dates or titles. But in Mantova, confronted by a direct question, he could not lie – after all, by now Baudolino is at the printers. The writer agreed to preview it with us as he did in 1980 for The Name of the Rose and in 1988 for Foucault’s Pendulum.

Laura Lilli: Umberto Eco, six years have passed since The Island of the Day Before, your third novel; and eight passed between your first and second. You have taken a regular pace.

Umberto Eco: It should be six years, but not really, because for two years I followed another track which I then abandoned. I was stalled on a point halfway through. All the rest I had thought through; but not this one point, and if I did not resolve it the others would not fit the mosaic. So I became disenchanted. Then this summer I went to the countryside for two months. I took it in hand and finished it “on the fly,” earlier than anticipated, and by the same amount of time that my nephew was prematurely born last month. Is this a twin-like delivery?

Laura Lilli: Before I get into the life of Baudolino, I would like to ask you in what way, if any, the success of The Name of the Rose has changed your life.

Umberto Eco: Well, it does not appear to me that success has changed it. Or maybe, yes, it has reduced a little the radius of my social life: it’s no festival, because everyone jumps on you to know your opinion, and you can see your trusted friends only in private. So paradoxically, I have been impoverished by it. A person whose name I cannot reveal wrote to me a few months ago: “Every time that I don’t see you on TV I have a crisis of admiration for you.”

Laura Lilli: However author’s royalties have not exactly impoverished you.

Umberto Eco: Certainly not. However against any angelic vision of the author, I declare my legitimate pride.

Laura Lilli: Did you expect a success of these dimensions?

Umberto Eco: Even the lowest poetastro, while he writes, hopes that millions of readers recite from memory his rhymes of “Heart” & “Love.” However the truth is that I was of a mind to give the novel to Maria Ricci for her Collana Blu. To therefore make it a niche object. But afterwards, Di Giuro, Bompiani’s editorial director read it, was enthused and declared, “I will make 30,000 copies.” I thought he was mad.

Laura Lilli: Who is Baudolino?

Umberto Eco: He is a boy who lives in the countryside near Marengo, which is more or less where the city of Allessandria was born in 1168 under the appropriate patronage of Saint Baudolino. Baudolino is a little rascal, similar to the scoundrels that exist in many indigenous mythologies: in Germany they call him Schelm, in England the Trickster God. In this sense, the book is a picaresque novel, and tells of his adventures in diverse lands. Baudolino’s father is the mythical Gaugliaudo Aulari, who saves Alessandria from Federico Barbarossa’s siege by telling the story of his cow.

Laura Lilli: Which story?

Umberto Eco: Well, the Alessandrians know it, and the others will read of it in my novel.

Laura Lilli: You were born in Alessandria: with this book do you return to your roots?

Umberto Eco: Certainly. I tell of my city and try to imitate its dialect, the style of speaking there. It surprised me to find, in official documents of that time, that the names of Alessandrians who founded the city are the same names of my school companions. I had some difficulties with the language, because the first chapter is written by Baudolino directly onto parchment when he was 14 years old. He was just then learning Latin, and he writes it in the vulgar form of his area, about which we don’t have any documentation. I enjoyed myself a lot.

Laura Lilli: Do you think the Sicilian readers will also enjoy themselves?

Umberto Eco: I hope so. There are no advances in philology here – I invented an imaginary Italian. These are not pages or erudition, they are pages of comedy.

Laura Lilli: And will the Lega like this book?

Umberto Eco: I don’t think so. I have reread about the battle of Legnano, the irreducible fighting between the Comuni that were against Barbarossa, but in perfect reciprocal disaccord, and were continuously changing alliances so as to spite each other. When Barbarossa pulls back from Alessandria, which he was unable to conquer, the Comuni could easily have hit him; but instead they allowed him to reach Pavia. They hated each other but they needed a father to quarrel with, and they did not dare to commit parricide. Studying that era I understood many of the reasons behind today’s Italian political crisis.

Laura Lilli: In any case, as with The Name of the Rose, we have here another medieval event.

Umberto Eco: Yes, but with many differences. The Rose told of the monastic world and the church’s internal disputes. This one speaks of the lay world, of Federico Barbarossa’s imperial court. In fact, Baudolino is adopted at age 13 by Federico, and lives with him through all the clashes between Empire and Comuni, the battle of Legnano, the Third Crusade (to which he pushes him) and so on. The Rose is cultured, this one is working class. The Rose is high style, this one is low style. The language is that of the peasants of the era or the Parisian students that speak like thieves. No Latin, except for some words. There is the usual hidden play on words, but the idea is that they are phrases really invented by Baudolino, and others later could have copied then.

Laura Lilli: He is a big liar this Baudolino.

Umberto Eco: Oh, yes he always invents tall tales; but every time they all believe him, and his exaggerations produce a great story. After all a reread the story of that period as the fruit of inventions by a young boy, who then grows up and with a band of friends invents the legitimization of the empire by Bolognese jurors, part of the epistolary of Abelardo & Eloisa, the legend of the Grail as it will be later told by Wolfram von Escenbach.

Laura Lilli: So without Baudolino the story could have been different?

Umberto Eco: Definitely so. He and his friends invent Prester John’s mythical letter, that really circulated in that era, describing a legendary Christian kingdom in the far Orient (Marco Polo will also talk about it). In the end everyone believes in it, and Baudolino departs with Federico searching for this remote kingdom. However later Federico dies in 1190 in circumstances that I make mysterious, establishing a “closed room” homicide-like event.

Laura Lilli: I will not ask you to reveal who the murderer is; but maybe you could tell us what becomes of Baudolino without Federico?

Umberto Eco: Up to this point I follow the sequence of events. After Federico’s death, Baudolino starts on a fantastic journey with his friends to mysterious lands inhabited by monsters, where Baudolino has incredible adventures, including a love of which I am very fond. I would say that as I was writing, I fell in love with the female protagonist of the story, whereas I should have had Baudolino fall in love.

Laura Lilli: And he does not fall in love?

Umberto Eco: Hell, no more; I will not tell the rest otherwise it was not worth the effort of writing a 500 page book, and this interview would have been sufficient! I can tell you that everything that becomes known is told by Baudolino, who by definition is a liar, to an important Byzantine historian, Niceta Coniate in 1204, while Constantinople burns and is plundered by crusaders. Niceta wrote of those days nearly as a direct commentary, but obviously he did not leave us any trace of Baudolino’s tale, because (I say) he did not know if he was real. Naturally the reader also does not know it, otherwise we should review the history of all those centuries.

Laura Lilli: This book is an apology for the lie?

Umberto Eco: Rather it is an apology for utopia, for those inventions that move the world. Columbus discovered America by mistake: he thought that the earth was much smaller. It is not true that he was the only one thinking it was round, as people still say; that it was round they knew before Plato. And what can be said about El Dorado? A continent is conquered following a myth.

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