So it is that Umberto Eco’s passing has occurred without as much notice. He was 84.
Umberto Eco (January 5, 1932—February 19, 2016) was an Italian writer who first attracted my attention in 1983 when the English translation of his first novel, The Name of the Rose, appeared. He had been asked by a publisher to contribute a series of short story thrillers for publication. Although he had never written a novel, Eco decided—at the age of 48—to write a Medieval detective adventure set in a Benedictine monastery, “because I felt like poisoning a monk,” he said.
The initial print run was 30,000 which Eco thought was far too optimistic. As it turned out, The Name of the Rose sold two million copies in Italy and 10 million copies worldwide…in 30 different languages. I bought four copies myself.
Eco single-handedly thrust Italy into a place of literary prominence with attributed to “the Eco effect.”
The Name of the Rose became a movie in 1986 with Sean Connery in the role of the main character, William of Baskerville. Brother William was indeed a Medieval Sherlock Holmes and the story ran as follows.
The year is 1327. Certain former Franciscans now living in a wealthy Italian abbey of the Benedictines are suspected of heresy. Brother William of Baskerville arrives to take part in a meeting of Franciscans. His ecclesiastical mission is soon eclipsed by seven bizarre deaths, like the wrath of the seven bowls in Revelation. Brother William must turn detective. He uses the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Aquinas, the scientific thinking of Roger Bacon and his own voracious curiosity. He is fascinated by the Abbey’s Library—“where the most interesting things happen at night”—which holds manuscripts now long gone. Brother William uses Greek and Latin to decode the many mysteries he encounters. Along the way, his young scribe, Adso of Melk, falls in love with a girl who suffers burning at the stake. In the end, both William and Adso mourn what has been lost: the girl for Adso, Aristotle’s Comedy for William. Both were burnt by religious madness.
One of my favorite lines from the book was when William says to Adso, “Fear prophets, Adso, and those prepared to die for the truth, for as a rule they make many others die with them, often before them, at times instead of them.”
Eco’s profession was professor of semiotics a field of study developed by Roland Barthes, the French theorist. According to semiotics, all culture is a tapestry of signs and symbols which are to be decoded for true or, at least, hidden meanings. And Eco would turn his piercing glance on everything from his blue jeans to Japanese haiku. In fact, in one famous saying, Eco declared that “Mickey Mouse can be perfect in the sense that a Japanese haiku is.”
He was criticized relentlessly by those who took exception to his methods, especially by Salman Rushdie. Rushdie declared Eco’s second novel—Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)—was without humor and characterization. He called the dialogue of the book unrealistic. He was wrong.
In that novel, Eco tells the tale of three friends begin to invent their own conspiracy theory, just for the fun of it. “The Plan,” as they call it, contains all the usual suspects of conspiracy lovers from the Knights Templars to the Paulicans to the Ascended Elders of Zion to the Nazis and the Illuminati. Ironically and horrifyingly, other conspiracy theorists hear of the theory and begin to accept it as truth. What began as a fanciful yarn turns into something ferocious and unrelenting.
This was semiotics in action. The novel decodes, in a farcical way, so much of European history. Wonderful.
It was just after the reading of Foucault’s Pendulum that I took an interest in his works on semiotics and literary theory. In his book The Role of the Reader, Eco argued the difference between an open and a closed text. Simply put, a closed text is one that says what the author intended and no other interpretation is possible. The open text leaves a portal for the reader to understand according to the reader’s own experiences and knowledge.
This is why Eco avoided interpreting the meaning of his writings but rather let the reader give meaning to the text. It is a liberating method of reading, even when we miss an author’s point in the doing.
In 1993 and 1994, Eco published two collections of essays: Misreadings and How to Travel with a Salmon. The essays poked fun at intellectuals, literature and life.
In 1994 came The Island of the Day Before. A marooned sailor in the 1600s is caught in a confused debate with himself about the nature of time and space. Baudolino (2000) takes us back to the Middle Ages and the questions of historical “truth.” But I saw something, in my role as reader, in Baudolino that confirmed so much of what I had experienced in my own life. As much as I enjoyed each and every book of Eco’s, Baudolino was a whetstone for me.
Eco was criticized by many reviewers for being “too clever” and, perhaps, even pseudo-intellectual. “I was always defined as too erudite and philosophical, too difficult,” Eco said. “Then I wrote a novel that is not erudite at all, that is written in plain language, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004), and among my novels it is the one that has sold the least.”
Born in Alessandria, a small industrial town in the Piedmont region of Italy where his father was chief accountant at the local iron works, his early life, he recalled later, had been shaped by the Mussolini era. When Mussolini fell, Eco remembered, “like a butterfly from a chrysalis, step by step I understood everything.” During the German occupation of northern Italy, he experienced starvation and recalled dodging bullets traded by the Nazi SS, the fascists, and the partisans.
As a teenager, he explored American literature and Jazz, and took up the trumpet. How could I not love a guy like that?
He married Renate Ramge (a German) in 1962. She survives him with their son and daughter.