YORKER: Tell us about "Without Blood." How did the story come to you?
ALESSANDRO BARICCO: For a long time, I'd had this image in mind: a child hiding in a hole, curled up, with something outside following him, looking for him. Something terrifying. I was thinking of what the child in the hole would be thinking, and about what might happen outside. Then, little by little, the whole story took shape, and when I decided to write it the details emerged. Now everyone says it's a story about war. But, in reality, the war is only a base. The real plot of "Without Blood" is that a child is saved by hiding in a hole, and then she spends the rest of her life looking for another hole where she can find the identical position and save her life forever.
The story seems to take place in an undefined place—Italy, Spain, maybe even South America. Why?
Almost all my books are set in imaginary places that are a synthesis of many different countries. In this case, as I was imagining the story of Nina, Spanish-sounding names kept coming to mind. I imagine that there's a sort of instinctive association between civil war and South America, or Spain. But the story I've written could very easily take place in postwar Italy, or France. In a certain sense, all wars are the same, men in war are all the same: they are the same mistake, infinitely repeated.
What does this period, the nineteen-thirties and forties, when Fascism was dominant, mean to you? What is interesting about it to you?
It was a period of enormous collective passions, maybe the last period of great, burning, blind collective political passions. And, naturally, a huge tragedy. Many things about those years are fascinating to me: the utter barbarism that people were capable of, the immense capacity for suffering, the capacity to have at the same time the highest ideals and the most brutish behavior. What also interests me is the intersection between grand historical destinies and small individual doings. It all seems to me a great theatre where the memory of an immense, collective mistake is preserved. With a memory of that sort, one can understand why, today, Europe is not very enthusiastic about making war or letting others make war—for people who have a century like ours behind them, there can be no desire except peace.
"Senza Sangue"—"Without Blood"—was published as a book last summer in Italy, and was an immediate best-seller. How do you account for its runaway success?
Well, in general, my books are popular in Italy. Readers have faith in me. It's been that way for all my books.
Your most recent book is "City," which came out in the U.S. this year. It's an elaborate, inventive novel about a thirteen-year-old genius named Gould—whose imaginary best friends are a mute and a giant—and his governess, Shatzy Shell. Woven into the story of their relationship are scenes from the Western that Shatzy wants to make; episodes from the story of an underdog boxer that Gould is telling himself; and sections of an essay by Mondrian Kilroy, one of Gould's professors. "Silk," which was published in English in 1998, is, on the other hand, a work of fable-like compression, about a French silk merchant who in 1861 is compelled to travel to Japan, where, in the court of an enigmatic nobleman, he meets a beautiful, mysterious woman, and becomes enthralled by her. Could you comment on these books?
To me, the one that seems most successful is "City," which is also the least read. People find it quite difficult. To me, it seems complex, which is a different thing. It's a good example of what we're doing in Europe when we work in the direction of, say, someone like David Foster Wallace: different results but starting from similar ideas, something like the intuition of a new literary horizon.
The book of mine that has been most widely read is "Silk." Of course, now I don't like it that much. (They tell me it's typical of writers to hate the book that has made them successful.) But I'm very pleased that it's been read in almost every country in the world. I remember that when I went to Thailand for its publication they told me that, before "Silk," only one other Italian book had been translated into Thai: "Pinocchio." That's the sort of thing that can put you in a good mood for a couple of months.
Much contemporary fiction is described as filmic, but "Without Blood" feels almost like a screenplay, with quick changes of narrative perspective, and dialogue that slips into paraphrase. Has film affected your work?
One thing that amuses me about my books is that people read them and imagine that they are practically films already—all they need is to be shot. Then, if you try to do it, you discover that nothing works, that they are elusive, and that it's extremely difficult to make good screenplays from them. In practice, it seems to me that my books can remind us that the world of literature, although it has learned many techniques from cinema, remains a world with a richness and complexity that cinema cannot