by Umberto Eco
A review by Ingrid D. Rowland
In 1508, the Tuscan painter Giovanni Bazzi, known as "Il Sodoma," frescoed a cloister
in the Benedictine abbey of Monteoliveto Maggiore with scenes from the life of
Saint Benedict. He peopled his paintings with visions of Benedict as a pretty
blond youth of modest dress and well-turned limbs, his cupid's-bow mouth set in
pious resistance to the blandishments of what the abbey's English-language postcards
call "tempting courtesans." In the midst of this painted chronicle of the medieval
saint's manifold trials and triumphs, a strange apparition stares out at the viewer,
a young brown-haired man in an outrageous hat whose long, irregular nose and full
lips are as pointedly individual as the saintly Benedict's features are blandly
generic. The figure's colorfully striped clothing, garish hose, and white gloves
present nearly as outlandish a picture as the small menagerie at his feet, dominated
by two bounding badgers. It is a portrait of Sodoma himself, and although it shows
a man whose nickname indicates how far his own life deviated from that of the
good Benedict, it steals the show.
As a novelist, Umberto Eco is rather like Sodoma painting the life of Saint Benedict. His invented characters never command anywhere near the same attention for themselves as the author himself. In the case of his first novel, The Name of the Rose, the real subject was clearly Eco's own love affair with books, and its real protagonist was a library. That library's final immolation at the novel's end was an event whose tragedy Eco conveyed with genuine feeling; in his description of its burnt and shredded pages scattering in the wind, he laid bare the vulnerability of all writing, and hence of all communication. Surely it was the skill with which he captured the sheer precariousness of all things human that made the book an enormous popular success.
The Name of the Rose was a novel of plot rather than character, an intricate murder mystery set in a medieval monastery whose two protagonists, Friar William of Baskerville and Adso the novice, took their names and their general personality outlines from Sherlock Holmes and the faithful Watson; like Watson, Adso becomes the bewildered narrator of events beyond his small, loyal grasp. Eco's chief villain, Friar Jorge, the blind librarian, was an equally recognizable avatar of Jorge Luis Borges, whose enigmatic short stories suggested more than a few of the details of plot and the setting for the novel. The book was riddled with signifiers. Its opening sentence, "It was a beautiful morning in November," paid homage to Snoopy's doghouse mantra in the comic strip Peanuts, "It was a dark and stormy night...." In an earlier book called How to Write a Master's Thesis, Eco had assured students that making a compilation of already known information was in itself an act of originality. His novel showed him taking himself at his own word.
But Eco's own magpie borrowing had a purpose other than comforting the souls of nervous students. In 1980, when The Name of the Rose became a surprise bestseller in Italy, creating this kind of self-conscious patchwork was an exercise in "bricolage" or "intertextuality," and it was fortified with reams of ponderous French critical theory that seemed at the time, to borrow a phrase from e.e. cummings, "to lead something into somewhere." The more disparate the shiny objects gathered in the bricoleur's magpie nest, the more glittering the bricolage was adjudged by those who played the game. Eco's own nest in The Name of the Rose expanded the form to gargantuan proportions, ranging the tinsel of popular culture alongside the gold standard of Holy Scripture.
What made The Name of the Rose seem like a special event, however, was not its display of erudition, but its simple, infectious passion for books, for reading and writing, and its sense of genuine experimentation. In creating the novel's peculiar literary hybrid, Eco, a forty-eight-year-old professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, had taken a tremendous risk with his academic reputation by flouting the etiquette of academic writing, and with a surprisingly vast international public the gamble worked.
A veteran teacher, Eco also seemed to have written The Name of the Rose as a test of fiction's capacity to communicate factual knowledge as effectively as expository prose. As if to prove the point, his essay "Lector in Fabula," written at about the same time as his novel, rehearsed the book's analogy between reading a text and navigating a labyrinth, but with dry, dense precision and no perceptible sense of mystery whatever. (Of course Borges had made the point and drawn the analogy long before in a marvelously terse short story called "The Library of Babel.") At the same time, Eco, like many Italian intellectuals, wrote a column in L'Espresso, one of the national weeklies; here he appeared, bear-like and avuncular, as a protagonist in his own right, voluble, funny, and voraciously interested in the world around him. Like Sodoma at Monteoliveto Maggiore, he continued to be his own most compelling character.
In 1988 there followed Foucault's Pendulum, which met the fate so often reserved for second novels. Despite the fact that some aspects of the new book's intricate plot clearly responded to criticisms of The Name of the Rose, a general consensus held that it was an altogether less successful performance. (William Weaver's translation probably fared better in the United States than Eco's original did in Italy.) One of these criticisms involved Eco's portrayal of women. Set in a medieval monastery, The Name of the Rose had paid only minimal attention to that half of humanity. Its single erotic scene involves the novice monk Adso discovering sex with the help of a filthy, illiterate scullery maid on the floor of the monastery kitchen. Adso describes the incident by stringing together verses from the Bible, particularly the spectacularly sexy Song of Songs. The conceit is, in its way, masterful; Eco reveals the young man's sexual repression along with its Christian source. He also solves, neatly, the perennial problem of writing persuasively about the more ineffable realms of eros by borrowing from a proven source. Thus the poor wench, drawn in words as the Rose of Sharon, becomes Adso's Dulcinea.
Later she re-appears, accused of witchcraft, for which she is tried and convicted by the oleaginous Dominican Inquisitor Bernard Gui and burned at the stake. (The movie version of The Name of the Rose saved her and instead skewered F. Murray Abraham's Bernard on a spiked wheel one of the film's most delicious moments.) Since the only other woman in much evidence throughout The Name of the Rose was the Virgin Mary, Eco's women presented a triad Madonna/sex object/ witch that fit comfortably enough within a plot situated in the Middle Ages, but lost him some ground with the female reading public. Meanwhile, the plot's real action revolves more significantly around books, words, secrecy, discovery, and the legitimacy of laughter.
Not so Foucault's Pendulum. It takes place in its writer's own time, the late 1980s, when Italian feminists had been bombing porno movie houses for years, and forced at least one Roman auditorium back into what has never more aptly been called "legitimate" theater. Eco obviously sensed the need for a corrective to the manly world of The Name of the Rose. Enter Amparo, as Latin American as Che Guevara, with a Jane Fonda frizz of permed hair except that her curls are mulatto-black. She is the Third World Woman. Amparo's jeans wrap tight around her long, long legs; she herself is a pinball wizard whose special move involves nudging the Bally table with her mons veneris. For a middle-aged Italian male reader of self-styled liberal inclinations, her entrance upon the scene may have conveyed some of the sexy cosmopolitanism that the girlie scenes in a James Bond movie suggest, with the added frisson supplied by taking up with a woman whose skin is chocolate brown.
But Amparo's apotheosis in the book comes on a trip back to her native Brazil, where a brush with native religion suddenly reveals her in all her essential animality. She goes into a rabid religious trance. All the Marxist awareness in the world, once catalyzed by a little candomblé, cannot keep her in her rapture from turning into a she-beast as feral as the illiterate scullery maid in The Name of the Rose. Amparo, in sum, is tried and convicted as a witch in the pages of Foucault's Pendulum no less emphatically than the fourteenth-century scullery maid is tried and convicted of witchcraft in Eco's earlier novel but this time the Grand Inquisitor is not the sinister Dominican Bernard Gui, it is Umberto Eco himself.
By 1988, other inquisitions were also running at full force. The title Foucault's Pendulum referred admiringly not only to a nineteenth-century scientific apparatus, but also to a French thinker who was then still alive and perpetrating a mighty work of post-structuralism on the campuses of the Western world. The basic point of Eco's long novel was no longer to prove as it was in The Name of the Rose that fiction could be as effective a means of communication as of narrative; the meteoric course of his own career had already decided that question in the affirmative. Instead, the pervasive influence of the non-pendular Foucault and his acolytes urged upon Eco's new book a new ambition: to show an unenlightened world that the very construction of reality was itself a fiction.
To this end, and in its general mood of post-structuralist hipness, Foucault's Pendulum also pressed a new technological instrument into service: the personal computer, with a simultaneous nod to the independent-minded computer HAL in Stanley Kubrick's movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. In Eco's characteristic fashion, the novel also paid homage to several other complicated subjects, including conspiracy theories, the Holy Grail, and the Jewish mystical tradition known as Kabbalah. Indeed, the epigraph to the first page of the book boasted, untranslated, a section of the great thirteenth-century Kabbalistic text known as the Zohar, "The Book of Light." Perhaps the epigraph's lack of a translation was meant to show the mystic opacity of a text that most of Eco's readers could not be expected to decipher. Mostly, however, it looked like showing off, a none-too-subtle (and not entirely convincing) suggestion that Eco was himself deeply versed in the hermetic Aramaic of the medieval Jewish mystics.
The last epigraph in Foucault's Pendulum, obsessed as it is with magic and the occult, cites Giordano Bruno, the southern Italian philosopher who was burned at the stake in 1600 for heresy (and resurrected in the 1960s as a Renaissance magus by the English scholar Frances Yates). Bruno hated academic showoffs. He called them asini pedanti, or "pedant-asses," and he sent them up at every opportunity in a torrent of Neapolitan invective. Like Eco, he spent his life trying to make the public at large understand intricate thought; but unlike Eco, he tried to communicate his philosophy by such unlikely media as a riotously obscene play called The Candlemaker, and epic quantities of Latin verse, and a dialogue laced with seventy sonnets called, appropriately for such an enterprise, The Heroic Frenzies. A preening epigraph in an academic novel is the last place that Giordano Bruno would ever have wanted to be imprisoned, and it is a pity that the fiery little southern Italian cannot train his stinging pen on the Piedmontese bear who has subjected him to such torture by bricolage.
Yet the real problem with Foucault's Pendulum as a novel about the construction of reality was, in fact, structural. Every aspect of the book, from the trumpeting pride embodied in its eclectic epigraphs to its horror story of a plot (the conspiracy theory that becomes reality), involved the author's detachment from his characters, a trio of ne'er-do-well computer geeks whose ultimate destiny is to succumb to the dark designs of Them, the conspirators whose vast plot is uncovered or invented: get it? by the protagonists. Unfortunately for the narrative's resolution, the identity of Them cannot be revealed, because the very point of the novel is that They are ... constructed. And so the novel revolves around a hollow, if theoretically fashionable, center. Stephen King can pull off this sort of trick because his intervening prose makes no great demands on his readers, but by the time Foucault's Pendulum comes to its conclusion Eco has subjected his readers to long lessons on Kabbalah, the Knights Templar, and computer information trees. Will they really be happy to learn that it was all a conceit?
In its most unkindest cut of all, however, the novel exposed, by repetition, similar weaknesses in The Name of the Rose, from the gratuitous displays of erudition to the pallid characters to those characters' adolescent human relations to the besetting academic sin of going on way too long. When Eco came in for a drubbing the second time around, he deserved it. The most telling line in the whole novel comes in its putative preface (actually written by the narrator), in which the narrator, then a callow youth, begs his father to buy a magazine with the plea that the magazine is educational. "The purpose of magazines," intones the father, "is to sell magazines." How coy! How knowing! How postmodern! Giordano Bruno once met this variety of bad faith by the following sonnet (at the beginning of his Ash Wednesday Supper of 1584):
If you've been worried in a cynic's bite
You brought it on yourself, you barbarous
In showing me your weaponry you err
Unless you're careful not to rouse my
The frontal charge you made was hardly
I'll shred your hide and pull out all your
And if no greater damage should occur
A diamond's where you've sought your
taunts to write.
Don't rob a hive of honey in the nude
Don't bite unless you know it's stone or
Don't scatter thorns unless you're
On spiderwebs a fly should not intrude
A rat that follows frogs is good as dead.
Hens and their brood all foxes should
And trust the Gospel verse
That tells you, kind and terse:
For him who sows a field with errors
A harvest of regret will be the prize.
Eco's third novel, The Island of the Day Before, apparently revolves around a character based on the seventeenth-century German Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, whose own foray into didactic fiction, The Ecstatic Heavenly Journey, which appeared in 1656, is a witty masterpiece. Well-endowed with ego himself, Kircher wisely acts as his own protagonist, playing off an acid-tongued guardian angel and a runny-nosed water sprite who taunt him mercilessly for his sluggish intellect and archaic ways of thinking. In harmony with the chastened 1990s, the tone of The Island of the Day Before is conspicuously lighter than the portentous thunderings of Foucault's Pendulum; Eco had traded in a ponderous post-structuralist lesson plan for a more straightforward plunge into fantasy. But the passion that animated The Name of the Rose is still missing, because the airy realms of intertextuality are thin stuff in comparison with that first novel's sheer tactile joy in books. Meanwhile, like many of Eco's pillaged authors, from the Bible to Borges, Athanasius Kircher has continued to speak perfectly well for himself. He has no need of postmodernism.
And here is Baudolino, Eco's fourth work of fiction. It is a picaresque novel set in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries that pays its respects to medieval chronicle and to Woody Allen's Zelig. The original pícaros made their roguish way through the social and religious labyrinths of sixteenth-century Spain, where their Most Catholic Majesties the King and Queen claimed to have converted or expelled every Jew in the country, seconded by the unstinting efforts of the Spanish Inquisition. Jewish ancestry stands at the heart of many a literary pícaro's career, from the seventeenth-century novels of Francisco de Quevedo Villegas to the figure of Leporello in Mozart's Don Giovanni, and this inescapable background of religious persecution makes theirs a supremely cruel world, in which they maneuver through violence, privation, and rigid social hierarchies with a survivor's desperation.
Cervantes's Don Quixote, as an eccentric aristocrat, was never a typical pícaro; and equally atypical was Cervantes's ability to make his hero at once sublime and ridiculous. Yet once Don Quixote had been invented he opened the picaresque to its full range of expressive possibility. (The musical Man of La Mancha captured Cervantes's range of characterization, from Don Quixote's foolish delusion and its occasional inadvertent cruelty to his tragic transcendence.) But the aspiring picaresque protagonist of Baudolino could no sooner wear a barber's basin on his head and call it the Golden Helmet of Mambrino than he could sing "The Impossible Dream": those are both acts that require a kind of unabashed sincerity, and a depth of individuality, that no Eco character has ever been substantial enough to muster.
Besides, musical comedy is not the kind of popular culture that the hip would ever deign to put into their lofty works of bricolage. It is too, well, popular. For all their professions of cultural egalitarianism, this caste of bricolating Brahmins includes some of the biggest snobs on the planet.
To wit: Baudolino has been in on every major event, factual and fictional, from the Twelfth-Century Renaissance to the Fourth Crusade of 1204, including the search for the Holy Grail, the embassy to Prester John, and the Three Princes of Serendip. We meet him in the blazing ruins of Constantinople, in the middle of its sack by Crusaders, and we listen, through the well-tended ears of the Byzantine courtier and chronicler Niketas Choniates (a historical person), to the flashback of his life, most of it spent in service to the peripatetic king Frederick Barbarossa. Like the gilded Florentine youth who sit out the ravages of the Black Death to tell the tales of Boccaccio's Decameron, Niketas and Baudolino remain strangely untouched by the carnage around them as they converse about Baudolino's life and times. It may be useful to remember that the novel was first published in Italy in 2000, when no one suspected that the southern waterfront of Manhattan would shortly come to resemble the book's description of the palaces along the Golden Horn going up in smoke. The implicit contrast between the refined civilization of Byzantium and the barbarity of the Crusaders who willfully put it to the torch is as forceful now as ever: the destruction of Constantinople in Baudolino, like the destruction of the library in The Name of the Rose, threatens to slay civility itself, and what power Eco commanded in his first novel he owed to his passion for every fragile thing that such a library represented. But a pícaro, in a setting as tragic as the sack of Constantinople, may simply be out of his depth. There are situations, in literature as well as in life, that call for a hero.
Baudolino owes more to Woody Allen than to Sophocles. Zelig-like, he has been everywhere that matters in his own time; and if, unlike Zelig, he also intervenes meaningfully in that history, it is not enough to make of him a hero. Instead he writes some of the important documents of the Middle Ages in order to prove that history, like reality, is constructed. (Perhaps a burning city is not the setting in which to make this contention stick.) Baudolino also witnesses the foundation of Alessandria, Umberto Eco's hometown, and writes one of the medieval texts that will "eventually" be pillaged by Alessandria's favorite son for bricolage in The Name of the Rose. What could be more clever?
Here is one humble suggestion: a novel by Italy's current favorite writer, the septuagenarian Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri, whose first mystery story, The Form of Water, has just appeared in English. Camilleri's quicksilver facility with the nuances of language and his extraordinary sense of humor make Eco's books look mechanical and labored. At the same time, this veteran screenwriter performs his miracles of mimicry with an indulgent smile for the characters who speak and write at his command, from the bedwetting German boy who dominates the opening scene of his own favorite novel, Il Birraio di Preston, or The Bartender of Preston, to Zosimo, the peasant prodigy who becomes, briefly, Il Re di Girgenti, or The King of Girgenti. Camilleri writes to entertain rather than to "sell magazines," and this professional commitment to his readers shows in every well-oiled move of his intricate plots and in every nuance of his characters, whose stock mannerisms act rather like the masks that picked out the characters in an ancient comedy. Camilleri can evoke the stark landscapes of his native southern Sicily without necessarily placing himself within them; indeed, his loyalty to his invented characters has become so strong that it has compelled him to tailor stories around supporting figures such as the stolid, earnest policeman Catenella who ritually summons his boss, the hard-boiled Commissioner Montalbano, pirsonalmente di pirsuna, "personally in person" or Montalbano's competent, sensitive lieutenant Mimi Augello. What Camilleri's readers usually remark about him is how hungry they get when reading his books, which are punctuated by ravishing descriptions of food, usually fish, cooked come Dio comanda, "as God commands it."
Put alongside this master storyteller, Umberto Eco reads like merely an academic novelist, a terrain that he has worked long and hard to conquer. But this conquest is a huge affair of vanity. And self-obsession's most charming face remains that of Sodoma.
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