Umberto Eco

A Renaissance Man Spans Batman, Monks

By Ed Voves

Philadelphia Daily News, January 3, 1997

During a recent visit to Philadelphia, Umberto Eco sat in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel discussing modern literature, Batman, opera, American detective novels, political correctness, growing up in Mussolini's Italy, 17th-century philosophy and Mickey Mouse.
That is an extraordinary range of topics for an hour's conversation, but Eco is no ordinary man.
The energetic 64-year-old author teaches semiotics, the study of symbols, at the University of Bologna in northern Italy. In 1980, he gained international acclaim with his novel The Name of the Rose. A murder mystery set in a 14th-century monastery, it combined themes, insights and humor from a wide range of human experience -- exactly like one of Eco's conversations.
"When Name of the Rose was first published in the U.S., the editor at Harcourt Brace, Helen Wolff, thought a mystery which takes place in medieval times would not sell more than 2,000 copies," Eco recalled. ''It sold over a million and was popular in the Midwest and mountain states, where it was not expected to do well."
Eco is not tooting his own horn as much as commenting on his belief that popular culture and ''higher" culture are converging to form a new world view.
''If you look at the Batman of the l950s, which was an unsophisticated cartoon, and compare it with today's Batman movies, you will see a great change. The Batman of the '90s has a style full of quotations from literature, art, and even a syntax or feel that is hyper-sophisticated."
As a boy, Eco loved American comic-book heroes like the Phantom and Superman. His familiarity with American culture was also nurtured by his work as a translator, producing Italian versions of Woody Allen's book Without Feathers, Jules Feiffer's political cartoons and the ''Peanuts" comic strip, among others.
''When I translated a book, especially hard-boiled detective novels, like those by Mickey Spillane, from English into Italian, I often had to do a parody of Italian detective novels to get the right tone.
"I could not do a literal translation of slang like 'Mr. Big,' or have the detective say to a cab driver, 'Take me downtown.' Italian readers would think that the American city was built like Florence, partly on a hill, with an upper and lower town.
''During the 1960s, people would comment on my familiarity with American culture and language by saying, 'You must visit the U.S. a lot.' Actually, I had never been to America."
Eco is a frequent visitor to the United States nowadays, and his trip to Philadelphia embodied his dedication to bridging the gulf between pop art and fine art.
He was here Nov. 18 to take part in the Free Library's ''Rebuilding the Future" lecture series, a forum for contemporary authors and their work.
Eco is also promoting the paperback edition of his latest novel, The Island of the Day Before.
Set in the 1600s, it tells the story of a ship-wrecked philosopher in the Robinson Crusoe tradition. It is also an evocation of a turbulent time, which Eco believes was the era when our own age of uncertainty was born.
Like Name of the Rose, Island of the Day Before will have readers doing a lot of deep thinking. That does not disturb Umberto Eco in the least.
"The duty of a novelist," Eco said, ''is to make you understand that life is not so simple."

Philadelphia Online -- Philadelphia Daily News -- Features Copyright Friday, January 3, 1997

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