Just some days ago I finished the Hungarian translation of Umberto Eco’s collected conference papers – or, as he calls them, “casual writings”: Costruire il nemico, “Constructing the enemy”. The source of the title was that personal experience of Eco when the Pakistani taxi driver in New York tried to place on his mental map the unfamiliar land of Italy by asking him who their traditional enemies are.
Believe or not, the same was asked of me two weeks ago by the taxi driver in Azerbaijan. It seems that besides the classical example of anthropology – when two New Guinean natives from two different tribes meet by chance, they must find at least one common ancestor, even if mythical, lest they should kill each other – a common enemy is also able to create harmony and patting on the back between strangers. For this truth we certainly do not have to go far, but the Caucasus has such long-established traditions of constructing the enemy that if Eco had been aware of them, he should have not reused his well known examples taken from Ginzburg, Wagner or Céline.
But this reuse is also part of the conference paper genre. The audience does not expect something radically new, they love if the evening is made homely by evoking what they have already read, and this is not against the will of Eco either. As he points it out in the introduction: “one of the virtues of a casual writing is that it does not force you to be original at any cost, but simply wants to entertain both him who speaks and who listens to him”. The themes and texts well known from the books of the previous years reemerge one after the other in the essays – probably also indicating on which book the master was just working –, such as the inventories of medieval church treasuries from On Beauty, the topoi of the enemy’s deformity from On Ugliness, Victor Hugo’s never ending lists and Gargantua’s games from The Infinity of Lists, the imaginary worlds and lost islands from Baudolino and The Island of the Day Before.
But Eco is also capable of new stunts with the old texts. In the lengthiest writing of this volume, which received the suggestive title Hugo, alas! he shows with quotations flowing over long pages how many rhetorical devices are used by Victor Hugo to create exaggeration and increase it beyond all imaginable borders, so that finally it becomes epic and sublime for the baffled and crushed reader. And in the following essay “I am Edmond Dantès!” Eco also tries to achieve something similar. After a detailed and delightful analysis on the most important rhetorical tool of the feuilletons, the unexpected recognition of the actors and its subclasses, he composes a collage from the big scenes of recognition in the works of Dumas, Hugo, Ponson du Terrail and others, running incessantly over ten pages. And this endless firework has a perfect effect also without any knowledge of the persons and the context: we read it with excitement, no matter how long it is.
The essay Velinas and silence, on the other hand, is only six pages long, nevertheless it makes the translator work hard, as he has to provide with a multitude of footnotes the memes referring to the Italian domestic affairs of 2009, beginning with the velinas featured in the title. This word, which originally meant the fine paper used for multiplication by typewriting – does it exist any more? – first changed its meaning during the years of Fascism when the “Ministry of People’s Culture” (MinCulPop) informed through such messages the editorials on what may and what may not be published. Henceforth, velina also meant such instructions from a higher place and in a figurative sense the very censorship as well. Later, from 1988 the TV show Striscia la notizia – which has by now grown into one of the most watched programs in Italy – set on the stage beautiful girls who, running on skates, delivered typewritten messages to the two comic-presenters, and consequently they were also called velinas. The meaning of the word was further expanded – and even the version velinismo created – in 2009, when Berlusconi’s party, quite cynically, nominated exclusively erotic actresses, singers, TV presenters and even reality show participants for the European parliamentary elections. Eco points out a deep relationship between the apparently disparate meanings of the word:
The velina once became in the journalist jargon a symbol of censorship, silence and disappearance. However, the velinas of today, as it is well known, are just the opposite of that: the icons of appearance and visibility, and even the symbols of fame achieved by mere visibility which are made prominent only by their appearance. So we have two forms of velinismo, which correspond to two forms of censorship. The first is censorship by silence, while the second by noise, the means of the latter being TV shows, media and so on. If the velinas of the past said: “To prevent deviant behavior, you must not talk about it”, modern velinismo says: “In order not to talk about deviant behavior, one must speak a lot about other things”. The noise that covers up reality.
But Eco would not be Eco if he had no surprise in store for the translator. The night before the completion of the translation two absolutely recent writings – one about the Wikileaks affair – came as an addition, thus increasing the timeliness of the volume. But I would have been surprised if it did not happen so. As I mentioned, the Italian publisher is editing the original text of Eco’s works while the translators work on the international versions, in order to publish it in all languages at the same time, and the master actively takes part in the process of the edition. So throughout the translation you can expect casual e-mails containing changes and additions which lends a specially Ecoesque meaning to the word velina.