Umberto Eco

Fiction

The Name of the Rose

Translated by William Weaver

1. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, ISBN 0-15-144647-4; Hardcover, $35.00. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Harcourt Brace: Harvest in Translation, 1984, ISBN 0-15-600131-4; Trade paperback $15.00. Includes Postscript to The Name of the Rose. [Browse/Purchase]

3. Folio Society, 2001, Hardcover, £27.50. [Browse/Read Porta Ludovica Review]

Originally published in 1980 as Il nome della rosa, Eco’s first novel has rapidly assumed the status of a modern classic. Set in a northern Italian abbey in the year 1327, The Name of the Rose is an engaging and unusually dense mystery, harmoniously combining many different elements into one seamless whole. The book is like a marvelous play, where philosophical discussion, theological debate, and scientific discourse interact brilliantly on the stage of historical fiction; a drama where a complex plot masked as a detective story pulls the reader into surprisingly dynamic relationships with a cast of metaphysical characters.
There are many opinions of this book, which is both rare and wonderful for a work basically so young. Its fanbase is very large, and includes mystery buffs, classical lit professors, postmodern fiction enthusiasts, science fiction and fantasy fans, mathematicians and linguists – rarely does one encounter a contemporary work with a readership so diverse. Some know it only from the film version with Sean Connery and Christian Slater; a decent movie, but as a faithful rendition of the novel, it is not without serious flaws. Some consider it an historical mystery, a literary whodunit touching on everything from God to toxicology, and to others it plays like a supernatural novel of the occult, filled with arcane references and sinister monks brooding in the shadow of the Apocalypse. To some it represents a modern refutation of the Medieval world-view, a semiological reply to the question of Universal Natures in the form of a Roman a clef. And then again, more than a few have tossed the book into the corner, discouraged by its clutter and unwilling to plow through the infamous “Adso admires the door” chapter.
So what exactly is all this about?
The novel opens with a few words from the “author,” if I may put that word into quotations; for Eco uses the time-honored literary device of disavowing authorship, claiming instead to have uncovered the manuscript of a 14th Century monk named Adso of Melk. After a few mandatory notes from Eco, the reader is immediately plunged into the mind of this aging monk, who has a story to tell about a certain memorable week from his youth....
Although related by Adso, the story centers around Adso’s mentor, an English Franciscan named William of Baskerville. A disciple of Aristotle and Roger Bacon, William is a man whose religious convictions dwell in coexistence with his love of philosophy and his penchant for investigative science. These “modern” views, which largely define his character and ensure the reader’s sympathy, are about to be thrown into stark relief against the darkest facets of the medieval mind set. The plot begins when William and his enthusiastic pupil are sent to a Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy. This abbey has been chosen to host an important but controversial theological meeting, and it is William’s assignment to lay the groundwork for a smooth transaction. But prior to beginning his investigation, a gruesome murder occurs, shocking the complacent monks and intriguing the ever-curious William. As he investigates the circumstances of the murder, he and Adso set forth on a journey through a convoluted labyrinth of intrigue, where every twist brings them in contact with the superstitions, beliefs, and political machinations that rule the brothers of this strange abbey. As the story unfolds against a background of escalating violence and increasing hysteria, William and Adso find themselves pulled into a widening vortex of tension that soon threatens to unwind the very fabric of their social universe. At the eye of the storm is a secret book hidden away like a deformed child in the attic, a semi-mythical work by Aristotle which heretically declares laughter as the only escape from the doctrine of Universal Truth....
Not only is the story a fascinating one, but the book is amazingly well written, and reads more like a tour-de-force from a master novelist than the fictional debut of a semiotics professor. Eco doesn’t merely describe the fourteenth century, he thrusts the reader into its heart, soul, and bowels, his prose resurrecting the medieval world around the reader’s dazzled senses. Like the labyrinthine library at the heart of the story, his prose reflects the convolutions of the age with all its conflicting worlds of thought. At times dense and dark, at other times exploding with illumination, the narrative captures the tensions and glories of an age posed on the brink of discovery, yet desperately clinging to the past. Every nuance and detail is lovingly rendered, from the stinking muck of a stable to the glorious illuminations of a manuscript, from the apocalyptic fervor of the willfully ignorant to the intellectual wonder invoked by a pair of spectacles. The characters are beautifully drawn, many slyly referring to personalities from literature, such as Jorge of Burgos, the irascible blind librarian, a tweak of the nose to Jorge Luis Borges. Bernardo Guidoni, the Inquisitor whose visit looms over the abbey like a coming plague, is drawn from history, as is the sad heretic Ubertino of Casale. Of course, the most remarkable character is William of Baskerville. Shining through the pages of the book like a beacon of clarity, banishing the darkness of ignorance with the light of reason, Brother William is an irresistible and unforgettable protagonist, possessed with Eco’s modern sensibilities and given a name that fairly twinkles with humor, sparkles of light flashed from Sherloccam’s razor wit.
This fondness for puns and allusion is not restricted to the cast of characters. The Name of the Rose is filled with puzzles, arcane references, and literary gamesmanship, from the realization of imaginary books to the witty mechanisms of the library’s lethal maze. Even its title is an enigma of sorts, and the source of speculation for several essays, including a “Postscript” by Eco himself (included in the Harvest paperback edition). The sense of play in The Name of the Rose is grounded by a deeper level of humor, a spiritual goodwill shielded from banality by a protective layer of irony. Although the novel depicts many tragedies and profound lapses of reason, it is neither unrelentingly bleak nor mired in existential despair. William – and, one senses, Eco – has a genuine compassion for his fellow man, and even when his anger flares or his patience fails, he can still embrace life with good humor, wry understanding, and a hard-won sense of balance.
A detective story and then some; there are as many valid ways to read this work as there are readers. A modern answer to the Middle Ages, a refutation of Universals and Absolutes, a celebration of the birth of the experimental method, a dialogue between personified ideals – all are valid frames of reference, and all have something to teach us about our own modern world. Eco is here a conjuror crossing time and space, using the long ladle of Aristotelian tradition to churn up the Middle Ages in his postmodern cauldron; and as the abbey teeters towards both revelation and destruction, we are invited inside to taste the heady brew.

Foucault’s Pendulum

Translated by William Weaver

1. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988, ISBN 0-15-132765-3; Hardcover $33.00. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Ballantine, 1990, ISBN 0-345-36875-4; Mass Market Paperback $7.99. [Browse/Purchase]

One of the most paranoid and complex novels written since Gravity’s Rainbow, Foucault’s Pendulum is a riveting account of one man’s voyage into the unknown; but whether he’s on a journey to enlightenment or a bad trip into a nightmare world of paranoia is a haunting uncertainty.
A conspiracy story on a grand scale, Foucault’s Pendulum was originally published in 1988 as Pendolo di Foucault, and draws from the same well often visited by Jorge Luis Borges, H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Pynchon, Milorad Pavic, and Robert Anton Wilson. (Just as Eco’s novel would set the stage for the current generation of pop-historical thrillers such The Da Vinci Code.) Foucault’s Pendulum is set in a universe where fact mingles imperceptibly with fiction, where secret societies chart the true course of human evolution, and the occult exerts its subversive influence on reality in ways barely glimpsed by the average individual. Here the Templars and the Illuminati trade secrets in the darkened house of ignorance, and the lightbearers are only as trusty as their Ur-father, Lucifer.
Or it could all be an illusion.
A sprawling tale that connects the hermetic traditions of countless cultures across thousands of years, the actual plot begins simply in present-day Milan. Here, an Italian Colonel expresses his fears about a Templar conspiracy to a pair of editors named Belbo and Diotallevi and their friend Casaubon, a doctoral student and an expert on Templar history. (Belbo, the senior editor and proud owner of a new computer, is a loosely autobiographical character; he has an apartment in Milan and a summer house in northern Italy, smokes copious amounts of cigarettes, and enjoys whiskey. Although his adult life is different from his creator’s, many of Belbo’s childhood memories from Piedmont are drawn from Eco’s actual life.) Entertained by the sheer grandiosity of the Colonel’s cliché-ridden story, the trio’s amusement turns to consternation when the Colonel is soon reported missing. Perhaps he was not quite the crackpot he seemed?
The mystery of the Colonel’s disappearance tunes the trio more closely to occult wavelengths, and as they pursue their lives across the next several years, they notice more and more connections between various religious doctines, hermetic systems, and pseudo-historical conspiracy theories. From the Templars to the Rosicrucians, from lost underground cities to Brazilian Candomblé, everything seems to develop sinister interconnections. Eventually they are reunited in Milan, and as fate would have it, they are placed on a project to publish a series of books on esoteric lore. Their work plunges them even deeper into the telluric world of concealed truths, and soon they decide to synthesize everything they’ve learned into an apocryphal tale of their own, formulating one vast, all-encompassing Plan reflecting the secret history of the world. They are helped by a mysterious individual who claims to be immortal, as well as Belbo’s new computer, Abulafia. But as the Plan grows, the men find that it becomes harder and harder to ignore its many ramifications. Within time, the Plan assumes a life of its own, and as everything starts to fall apart at the seams, the men begin to question their own sanity – and perhaps the nature of reality itself.
It’s this inevitable descent into uncertainty and madness that Eco captures so masterfully, and Foucault’s Pendulum is filled with literary devices that mirror its arcane world. Using a framework loosely based on the Qabalah, Eco employs a wide range of elements that juxtapose the modern and the ancient, the supernatural and the scientific. Computer entries show the powers of modern technology while simultaneously crunching numbers for antique formulae. Flashbacks set the idyllic scenes of childhood against the painfully adult quest for identity. Sharp postmodern ironies stab through dense tapestries of gothic horror. The reader is taken on a disorienting ride through centuries of thought, ideas flashing by on every side, but somehow Eco manages to keep the focus on his characters. Indeed, after a while one feels all too close to the poor soul narrating this awful tale, this Casaubon whose final destiny is suggested at the very beginning of the book.
As in his previous novel, The Name of the Rose, Eco makes sure that his dazzling surface rests upon a firm foundation, and he seeks to actively engage the reader in a deeper play of ideas. From very early in the book, the reader is served with Pendulum’s underlying subject matter: the importance of symbols, the meaning of secrets, and the reality of universal truths. Using the wand of his esoteric narrative, Eco summons up several centuries’ worth of hermetic systems, alphabets, symbologies, and ciphers; and through the eyes of Casaubon and his associates they are examined, cross-referenced, deconstructed, refuted, discarded, resurrected and ultimately believed, rejected, or tabled for further discussion. Throughout this arduous process a few nagging questions arise, and it is here that the reader is truly challenged, forced to confront the central issues of the sprawling tale. Eco presents us with the notion that our symbols and alphabets are merely constructs, mirrors that reflect back only what meaning we desire to see. But if these devices are only containers for meaning, what then is meaning itself? Is meaning universal, relative, or completely artificial? How is meaning related to belief? Does our belief engineer our reality, or is it the exact opposite? Is belief a prison, or is it a form of ultimate freedom? What power have we placed in belief, in secrets, in mysteries? And what if the essence of something is concealed – does revelation await the diligent, or merely layers and layers of signifiers with no objective reality? Does the mystery of belief lie in the concealment of these “truths” to all but the devout? And if there is some kind of universal truth, how can it be realized in a universe guided by ostensibly random and meaningless principles? And given all this, what then is the difference between belief and madness, or between doubt and madness?
In one particularly brilliant chapter, Casaubon’s girlfriend uses common sense and a trust in simplicity to refute nearly the entire history of the occult, overturning countless hermetic secrets with a simple wave of her hand, reducing a network of conspiracies to the importance of a laundry list. In many ways, this chapter acts as an almost Borgesian refutation of the entire novel, and undermines any confidence we may have in an ultimate resolution. Like Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 or Darren Aronofsky’s film Pi, we are left suspended between two mutually exclusive systems of thought. As the novel progresses, these contradictions and attendant paranoias press deeper into the mind of the narrator, and as the plot accelerates towards the singularity established in the beginning of the book, the borderline between inspiration and insanity grows increasingly more tenuous – for both Casaubon and the reader. But just as the ending is reached, suddenly—

The Island of the Day Before

Translated by William Weaver

1. Harcourt Brace & Company, 1995, ISBN 0-15-100151-0; Hardcover $25.00. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Harcourt Brace, 1984, ISBN 0-15-600131-4; Paperback $16.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Just as the style of Rose reflects the murky density of the late medieval period, and Foucault’s Pendulum reads like a paranoid romp through our fractured postmodern century, the narrative of Eco’s third book blossoms exquisitely outwards along numerous frills and ornamentations, a baroque construction rooted in the seventeenth century.
The Island of the Day Before, published in 1994 as L’isola del giorno prima, is the story of a man named Roberto, a chameleon-like and slightly eccentric Italian who finds himself shipwrecked, of all places, upon another ship. This abandoned vessel, the Daphne, is anchored near an island of stunning beauty; but Roberto is forced by his fear of the sun to avoid the daylight, devoting his time to exploring the strange vessel and penning melodramatic love letters to his “Lady.” During his reveries and periods of writing, he has the time to review his colorful life – his haunted childhood in Italy, his martial experience at the siege of Casale, his education in the decadent salons of Paris – a life to which he dearly wishes to return. But all is not lost; fortunately for Roberto, the ship provides a wealth of opportunities to stave off hunger and boredom, as it’s been thoughtfully equipped with a host of wonders from a room of clocks to an exotic aviary. Unfortunately for Roberto, however, the ship is less abandoned than he had initially thought. But who could this stranger be, this unseen Other who feeds the animals and reads Roberto’s journal while he sleeps? Is it his imaginary brother and evil double Ferrante? Is it another soul in search of the ultimate navigational secret? And just why was this unique craft abandoned anyway? What marvels await on the island?
This, Eco’s third novel, is yet another brilliant accomplishment. At heart, it is a tale of the seventeenth century, a dizzying time when science and reason were divorcing themselves from magic and superstition, when politics and religion were swirling with new currents, and the fires of Revolution and Enlightenment could be barely glimpsed in the distant mirrors of a Paris salon. Filled with a sense of ironic wonder and sly confidence, the story visits one remarkable character after another, allowing each to have their strutting say upon the stage of the narrative. Nature, Theology and Physics are discussed and virtually embodied by a lovable cast of wits and crackpots, lovers and scholars, inventors and inquisitors. All signs and signposts melt into an ambiguous stream of thought; languages are cobbled together as needed by bookish eccentrics, Aristotelian priests talk in Moral & Important Capitals, and the decadent wits destroy God and the State with their rapiers and epigrams, both equally pointed and deadly.
The story is told using a most ingenious framework: Eco (as the anonymous author) poses as the narrator, but he is merely reconstructing the original journal left behind by the quixotic Roberto. Taking this idea several steps farther than in The Name of the Rose, here Eco does not feel bound to faithfully duplicate the original manuscript. Like a modern Cervantes, he freely adapts his found text, offering his own commentary on how “we moderns” must look at certain situations in the novel, and occasionally chiding Roberto or offering amusing posthumous criticism. It is a wonderful idea, and it works extremely well, giving the story an inescapable glow of ironic humor.
Although The Island of the Day Before is more playful and lighthearted than Eco’s previous two novels, it is every bit as dense, serving as a cornucopia of unique images and intriguing ideas. The book is bursting with life, and again Eco makes his writing a platform for the discussion of language and philosophy; and by looking at the marvels and follies of the past with fresh and vigorous eyes, our own ideas and technology are given a new shine as well. Cleverly, Eco presents the science of the mid 1600s with all its “credibility” left intact, and spends many happy pages discussing the ramifications of arcane and esoteric geography, astronomy, physics, and chemistry. At a time when Galileo was only recently dead and Newton just an infant, Eco reaches into the playpen of now-discarded scientific ideas, taking a childlike delight in pulling out long forgotten concepts and investing them with a certain sense of authority, allowing them their place in the sun along with metaphysics and religion – indeed, often welding them indistinguishably together.

Baudolino

Translated by William Weaver.

1. Harcourt Brace & Company, 2002, ISBN 0-15-100690-3; Hardcover, $27.00. [Browse/Purchase]

2. Harcourt Brace & Company, 2003, ISBN 0-15-602906-5; Paperback, $15.00. [Browse/Purchase]

Published in November 2000 by Bompiani, Eco’s fourth novel is a picaresque work set in the time of Barbarossa. It follows the semi-mythical wanderings of one Baudolino, a tricky character who goes through many historical adventures and tells many lies. Eventually he winds up narrating his tale to the Byzantine historian Niceta Coniateas as Constantinople is plundered and burned by Crusaders.
Porta Ludovica has a fully detailed Baudolino review posted under the Reviews section.

La Misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana

Bompiani, 2004, ISBN 8845214257; Hardcover, € 19.00. [Browse/Purchase]

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Harcourt, 3 June 2005, ISBN 0151011400; Hardcover, $28.00. [Browse/Purchase]

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Eco's fifth novel, follows Giambattista “Yambo” Bodoni, a man who loses his memory after an accident. In an attempt to deal with his amnesia, he travels to his childhood home, where he reconstructs his life through a collection of old newspapers, comic books, school papers, record albums, and his grandfather’s diary. After a few days he is visited by another misfortune, and slips into a coma where he begins to have increasingly strange hallucinations. The work is heavily illustrated with accompanying images reflecting Yambo’s collection of memorabilia.
Until we have a full review up, check out the following:

The Gorge, a chapter of Queen Loana online at The New Yorker.

The Modern Word interviews Geoffrey Brock, translator of Queen Loana.

The Queen Loana Annotation Project - An ever-growing resource on the countless allusions and quotations in Eco's novel.

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–Allen B. Ruch
30 March 2005