15 March 2016

Umberto Eco died. I wish it were one of his characters stating this; we could then doubt it. One of the many things you learn with Eco’s fiction is namely never to fully trust a narrator, let alone other characters. You can trace this right through his work, albeit with many twists. The Name of the Rose (1980) tells the complicated (hi)story of the manuscript that contains Adso’s supposedly first-hand but long-past experience. Baudolino’s (2000) Greek historian relies on the highly dubitable stories of an ingenuous liar and beyond. Meanwhile, Eco’s last novel, Numero Zero (2015), is all about how the media lead us on while fiction reveals the truth… So perhaps despite all the media coverage his funeral received, he will re-emerge one day with another dizzyingly twisted conspiracy theory telling the story of his own death, sold as fiction but packed with facts.

I waited two weeks before writing to see if it turns out to be a hoax, but no, it still hasn’t. Obituaries now abound, written by those who knew him, worked with him, translated or studied his work. I am just a modest reader. But he wasn’t ‘just’ an author for me. He embodied the most exciting combination of a storyteller, a detective, and a public intellectual – and in all that, the most inspiring teacher. That is, an Author, with a big A. Someone who is a shared treasure and a personal affair at the same time. Someone who has so often compelled me to think, and to think differently, and whose memory now compels me to write about him. ‘Let us say it is an act of love,’ to speak with the fictional translator of Adso’s story, as all writing is, one way or another. So here is a quick sketch of each of his three faces, filtered through three things I owe to him, for a somewhat subjective but at least three-dimensional portrait of the Author as a wise man.

Storyteller, first, because that’s how most people know him. And because I learnt Italian with and through Eco’s fiction. Something you never forget, like a first love. Having started some rather uninspiring language classes on the side of my degree course, I soon pretentiously went on to deciphering Foucault’s Pendulum (1988)in the original, which was a much more exciting exercise. My journey into Eco’s world in the sleepy stolen hours before daybreak was a journey into his enchanting language, and vice versa. ‘Fu allora che vidi il Pendolo’ – this is the first sentence of the novel. Brief, catchy, and intriguing, the bounciness of which the English ‘That was when I saw the Pendulum’, as precise as it can be for the meaning, cannot render. It was like a siren’s song to me, and I embarked on a journey into the unknown. There is something fascinating about being able to read in a new language and exploring a world through its melody. And there is something fascinating about Eco’s worlds, that strange mixture of story, mystery, science, history, and wisdom on writing, reading, and understanding signs and books.

Indeed, Eco conceived of writing fiction as constructing a world, full of unknown and unknowable places – just like the world we live in. ‘Narrative is first of all a cosmological matter’, he said in a lecture, reiterating a point made in his Reflections on The Name of the Rose. ‘That’s why novelists have so much in common with God.’ He revealed how he built the world of each of his novels before getting down to the dialogues, first carefully designing every detail of the spaces where the actions would take place, drawing the monastery and its labyrinthine library, calculating distances between buildings, engineering the ship for The Island of the Day Before and so on. Except that it reportedly took God seven days to do it, while for a novelist of Eco’s kind it’s rather seven years of patient accumulation and cogitation. But ‘the great pleasure is the preparation of writing’, he also said. ‘A secret pleasure, almost onanistic. No one knows what you are doing.’

What he was doing in creating worlds was detective work backwards, as it were, creating the signs for his characters to interpret. But detective Eco was not only in and for his fiction, but also in scholarship as he practised, presented, and professed it. ‘With his black hat and his moustache, Umberto Eco looked like a police superintendent investigating Aristotle’s death’, French literary journalist Bernard Pivot tweeted. Eco described himself as a philosopher, and his first published works investigated medieval aesthetics – a lame or even non-existent topic according to Benedetto Croce, long-term authority in Italy in the first half of the last century. Eco proved otherwise, showing how the concern with beauty in Thomas Aquinas’s work is inscribed in reflections on religion and metaphysics. It was a tough and thorough piece of detective work, tracking down protean concepts and malleable ideas across canons and centuries. He was 22 when he wrote it.

From following signs and traces, Eco turned to theorizing them through the then emerging field of semiology, the study of signs and sign systems. In the end, whether we are reading Thomas Aquinas, James Joyce, or James Bond, researching a concept or investigating a crime, it is all about interpreting signs and unravelling their relationships. Thinking about the nature of signs led him to thinking about the process of interpretation, the role of the reader in it, and the limits of interpretative freedom. Yet even while discussing theoretical issues, Eco remained a storyteller, fully embracing the ‘narrative fallacy’, his examiner once reproached him for. ‘Every research must be narrated’, he maintained, ‘and every scientific book must be a sort of whodunit, or the report of a quest for some Holy Grail.’

Being a storytelling detective also made him an excellent teacher with his inspiring musings, methods, and manual. If he revealed the secret of fiction – ‘When interviewers ask me “how do you write your novels”, I usually cut them short and reply from left to right.’ – he wasn’t jealous of his secrets of successful academic writing either. And this is the second thing I owe to Eco: his How to Write a Thesis (1977) helped me through some tough times since my graduate dissertation. I’ve always tried to stick to writing from left to right, but a lot of back and forth, zigzagging, and ups and downs have also been involved. Eco gives the much-needed reassurance that this is normal, while also offering threads that can help you find your way in and out of the labyrinth. Never mind that a whole big digital revolution happened since this book was written. The instructions to using paper catalogues and index cards might have a charmingly vintage flavour today, but the advice on searching properly and smartly, keeping decent records, organizing well your material, knowing your limits, and sticking to your objectives has aged rather like some good wine. MIT has confirmed by finally publishing the first (!) English translation in 2015. The Big Info Dump called the Internet gives the illusion of making research easier. But it doesn’t. It’s rather either overwhelming or makes any research seem superfluous. And that’s where this book is more relevant than ever: it radiates the thrill of pursuing a proper and thorough intellectual quest; it makes you want to start and go on, get down to work and enjoy the ride, wander and wonder but with method, taking the job seriously and doing it properly in the time available for it.

Intellectual honesty is what this is called. Which, in Eco’s sense, must go beyond academia. So here is the third thing I owe to him: my first book review for a weekly paper. It was on the Hungarian translation of Eco’s Baudolino (2000). It wasn’t exactly conceived as an act of dispensing my wisdom to the general public – I was in the first year of my PhD – but still an attempt to speak smartly about a smart book in the columns of a newspaper. Eco saw presence in the public sphere as an integral part of being an intellectual: ‘I believe it is my job as a scholar and a citizen to show how we are surrounded by “messages,” products of political power, of economic power, of the entertainment industry and the revolution industry, and to say that we must know how to analyse and criticize them,’ he writes in the preface of Faith in Fakes (1973/1986/1995), a collection of essays and newspaper articles. His ‘way of being involved in politics’ is to ‘look at the world through the eyes of a semiologist’ and tell people what he sees under the surface of political events, mass media, and daily life. The combination of an erudite detective and an ironic storyteller made him an insightful columnist.

Eco regularly contributed to journals from the 1960s onwards, but Berlusconi’s scandalous governance also incited him to take more concrete political action. In 2009 he was among the first to sign the petition launched by the biggest Italian daily, La Repubblica, protesting against the limitations of the freedom of the press – which certainly inspired the dirty story of media power in Numero Zero. Then last year, already ill but hiding it, he still played an active role in what he himself called the crazy adventure of founding a new independent publisher, La nave di Teseo. Rather than a business venture, this was also an act of resistance against the monopolization of the Italian publishing market by Berlusconi’s interest group, which culminated in the purchase of the group RCS Rizzoli, including the prestigious Bompiani, by the already biggest Mondadori, owned by Berlusconi’s family holding and chaired by one of his daughters. Eco’s own new – and now last – collection of his columns in L’Espresso, Pape Satan Aleppe: Cronache di una società liquida [Pape Satan Aleppe: Chronicles of a Liquid Society] was planned to inaugurate the publisher in May, but the release was now brought forward to the end of February. It sold 75000 copies in the first day.

‘The author should die once he has finished writing. So as not to trouble the path of the text,’ he wrote in The Name of the Rose. He took this a little too literally this time. But he also said in his Reflections on the same book that ‘When a work is finished, a dialogue is established between the text and its readers (the author is excluded).’ The work is now finished. The Author is now definitively excluded. But our dialogue with the texts can continue.

Authors and the World website