I was spoiled. Perhaps I was fortunate, but the first book I ever read by Umberto Eco was Foucault’s Pendulum and to this day it’s still the greatest novel I’ve ever set eyes on. It didn’t take long to devour all of Eco’s collections of essays and observations and then, having seen the film, read The Name of the Rose.
It sort of went downhill a bit after all that.
I read The Island of the Day Before and I found myself on rough ground. I dug down until my arms ached, but I did get to the bedrock and sort of understood the gist of what was going on. Man on boat, island, something weird about the meridian, letters, recounts, tales. But to be honest I couldn’t concentrate on it, I couldn’t get to the core of the novel.
This isn’t surprising because Eco is part of a universe that believes in the multi-layering of expression, either deliberate or unwitting. It’s no coincidence that the opening credits to the film of The Name of the Rose describe it as a ‘palimpsest’: a document written on an older preused manuscript. Eco is a professor of semiotics, he knows all about the many-layered possibilities of a text and a symbol. His literature is a sedimentary exploration through time, with characters from one period placed upon those of another and another, tunnelling down into the depths of the narrative. Eco’s name occurs now and then in discussions about deconstructionist architecture, – which is how I first came across his work – alongside those of Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault himself.
Not to be put off by The Island of the Day Before’s complexity I moved on to Baudolino. The bookmark is still embedded half way through the book and I doubt it will ever move. What on earth is it all about? There’s no doubting Eco’s power as both a linguist and a storyteller, but Baudolino was, for me, like quicksand. The structure wasn’t the issue, Eco’s trademark storytelling was there, like an archaeological dig as you put the various fragments together to discover a bowl or a hat pin. But eventually you find that by the time you’ve identified the artefact you’ve forgotten where you’re digging. I left Baudolino at the gates of Constantinople. He’s probably still there, talking.
And now, the time has come again with The Prague Cemetery. The book lies enticingly on a table top, bookmark protruding, waiting for me waiting for it. So far a man has woken up thinking he’s someone else… If I was making notes I’d be an expert now on Italian politics in the 19th Century. I shall continue and hopefully discover a novel that wasn’t as elusive as Baudolino, or as challenging as The Island of the Day Before. It leaves me wondering why I didn’t have this problem with Foucault’s Pendulum. Just as heavy, just as layered, just as sedimentary as the others and yet its computerised diary, museum paraphernalia, wonderful world of metals and the Comte de St. Germain all made perfect sense. I even read it twice to make sure!