Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Guest Blog: Umberto Eco Overview

One of the new things I'm going to do this year is host some Guest Blogs.  Thus far, you have only heard about books on here from my perspective.  But I have a lot of incredibly insightful friends whose thoughts I want to share with you as well!  And I'm excited to begin with my good friend, Andrew Shaughnessy:

I’m not quite sure what I was thinking when I agreed to write about Umberto Eco when Amy asked me to write a guest post for her blog. I have so much to say, too much to say, in fact. Eco is one of my favorite authors, but his ideas and books are so complex that I scarcely feel qualified to say anything about them. Eco is the kind of author who is best discussed over a heavy stout or a strong coffee, when one can throw ideas around with less commitment than print. Oh well. Here goes….

The Name of the Rose, perhaps Eco’s most famous book, is an oft-cited, endlessly and differently interpreted work of postmodern fiction. The story, at its most basic level, concerns William of Baskerville, a Sherlock Holmes-like monk, who employs all of his powers of empirical and deductive reasoning to get to the bottom of a series of murders in a medieval monastery in Italy. At a deeper level, the story is largely about the fragmentation of reality, knowledge, and interpretation. These are primarily illustrated in a labyrinthine library in the monastery, which Eco employs as a symbol of the labyrinth of human experience and the search for knowledge. The very title of the book speaks to this semiotic disconnect. The rose, like much that appears to have meaning in the book, has come to symbolize so many different things that it has essentially lost any and all meaning.

This idea of the fragmentation of symbols, reality, and interpretation of both reality and fiction are recurring themes across Eco’s works. Eco is the master of showing the convoluted interplay between fiction and reality. For example, Foucault’s Pendulum tells the story of three publishers who, after reading a great deal of conspiracy theory literature, decide to invent a conspiracy of their own. The result is a web of complex symbols, numerology, and overlapping cults and conspiracies, which ultimately boils past its creators’ control when people begin to believe their fictions and act on them. Essentially, the fiction has become the reality. I tend to describe it to friends as Umberto Eco reading a Dan Brown novel, laughing at it, and saying: “I can beat that.”

This blurring of lines between fiction and reality springs up again in Eco’s latest book The Prague Cemetery, which was just released this year. Here, the protagonist makes a living as a forger of documents, creating or altering false personal letters, books, and political correspondences for profit. The “hero” makes his forgeries believable by drawing from, or even plagiarizing, novels. The end results are fictions so powerful, cast as they are in the guise of printed truth, that they are utilized in the rise and fall of nations, espionage, and even fomenting widespread revolution, nationalism and the beginning of European anti-Semitism.

Another interesting thing to notice with Eco is the clear influence of other writers, such as Jorge Luis Borges in particular.  The world-changing potential of fiction of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Prague Cemetery recalls Borges’ short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius, while the labyrinth of The Name of the Rose is a recurring image throughout Borges’ short stories.

I have scarcely done justice to any of these works, or even ideas. Eco is brilliant - there’s no way around that – and it is undeniable that his books are at times dense and complex to the point of confusion. Yet, their saving grace, and one thing I for one very much appreciate, is that Eco manages to place these complex and fascinating ideas inevitably within an entertaining frame story, something which Eco acknowledges he learned from G. K. Chesterton, (referencing The Man Who Was Thursday, which simultaneously works as a spy-thriller and an examination of God, life, and beauty).

The Name of the Rose is at heart a murder mystery. Foucault’s Pendulum is a conspiracy thriller. The Prague Cemetery is centered around espionage and political machinations in the 1848 upheavals in Europe. This makes them fun, but does not take away from the fact that his books are somewhat difficult to work through. That said, the effort is well worth the result.

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