Dan Brown not Umberto Eco’s sole echo

Italian novelist, essayist, literary critic and semiotician, Umberto Eco died on February 19.

Italian novelist, essayist, literary critic and semiotician, Umberto Eco died on February 19.

Before Dan Brown, in the beginning, was Umberto Eco. A semiologist at the University of Bologna, Eco’s day job was given over to the relationship between written signs and their referents in the real world and in another, more interesting, realm: that of ideas.

Little known outside the discipline of semiotics (which of his later readers, numbering in the tens of millions, would have read his 1975 academic treatise A Theory of Semiotics?), Eco burst on unsuspecting global audiences with The Name of the Rose (1981), a pointy-headed murder mystery “detective” thriller set in a medieval monastery.

Using the brilliant conceit that Aristotle’s long-lost Poetics books on comedy were secreted in the monastery library and deliberately withheld from the world, Eco took semiologists and ordinary readers on a gripping journey strewn with ideas and littered with bodies.

International bestsellerdom, with translation into 45 languages, was soon followed by a film, with Sean Connery doing the detection as the Ockham’s Razor-sharp English monk, Brother William of Baskerville (hounds not included, however).

Eco was made in the world beyond the ivory tower and further novels came along: Foucault’s Pendulum (1989), all about the secret and sacred treasures of the Knights Templar (now which Brown novel plays with that idea, I wonder?) and The Island of the Day Before (1994), a mind-bending disquisition on the nature of time and its duality: ephemeral and eternal, fleeting and forever.

The last remains my favourite of his fiction output, not least because its apprehension and analysis of time draws a line from Thomas Mann’s profound musings on the subject in The Magic Mountain.

Eco was both amused and enraged by Brown’s success, achieved by appropriating the specialist know-ledge at the heart of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum and dumbing it down for airport, beach and patio reading.

A while ago, Eco put on a post-meaning hissy fit and claimed that he had invented Dan Brown, a purely fictional fictioneer.

Eco himself had become so famous that he warranted being satirised, often. There is no better send-up of him than in Back to Bologna (2005) by the late Michael Dibdin. In this tenth and penultimate novel in his series about Venetian-born police inspector Aurelio Zen, we encounter Edgardo Ugo, a world-famous professor at the University of Bologna.

Of this grandee we learn much, including: “That was a leaf straight out of Ugo’s own book: Awe them with your command of arcane documented minutiae, and they’ll swallow your big contentious thesis ­without a murmur.”

Ugo’s villa has many scriptoria, each for creating a different genre. Among the five pieces he is working on are Work in Regress, a new metafiction, and a paper for “the prestigious learned journal Recherches Sémiotiques, tentatively titled The Coherence of Incoherence – a play on the celebrated treatise Tahafutal-Tahafut by the 12th-century Muslim scholar known in the West as Averroes, whose Arab name Ibn Rush opened up the possibility for the type of puns on the author of The Satanic Verses for which Ugo was justly celebrated …”

Dibdin has Ugo forced to accede to a live television cook-off with the well-known chef he has allegedly libelled, in order to head off a potentially ruinous defamation suit. Ugo accidentally sets the studio kitchen on fire; later in the novel, he is shot in the buttocks by an incompetent hit man. Very Fellini-like. Very Eco-like.

Opinions of Eco can vary greatly, depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re sitting on. The darling of continental Europe is less beloved across the small pond in the United Kingdom, and even less so across the bigger water, in the United States. There are typical Waspy suspicions that Eco is grand mummery, not plain-speaking honesty.

Some of those prejudices might be stoked by the book-length conversation This is Not the End of the Book (2011), in which Eco and French writer and playwright Jean-Claude Carrière dissect the subject of the title, with French writer Jean-Philippe de Tonnac as a sort of interlocutor-cum-devil’s advocate.

There is much talk about the two writers’ respective libraries of incunabula, books printed before 1501. But there is much that is more grounded, too. They agree that “there is nothing more ephemeral than long-term media formats” (floppy disks, videos, DVDs, CD-ROMs).

They contend that “our knowledge of the past comes from half-wits, fools and people with a grudge”. From that last dialogue, Eco offers: “But when [Bertrand] Russell says something stupid he says it clearly, whereas with [Martin] Heidegger even a truism is hard to spot. So if you want to go down in history, better be obscure. Even Heraclitus knew that …”

They discuss “fire as censor”, an incendiary strategy that seems to have been amended for use in South Africa in the very place that you hoped books would be at least somewhat valued: our universities, the libraries of which have recently been subjected to mindless attacks. Here, “reality” seems to be telling us, ­libraries can be sites of juicily ­rationalised pyromania.

There is a different reality at play for Eco and Carrière. On libraries, the latter says, among many things: “They should be books that we can read. Or that we may read. Even if we never do.”

Eco responds: “A library is an assurance of learning.”

Talking about “books with a will to survive”, Eco avers that: “We love the act of creation to be shrouded in mystery. The public demands it. If that weren’t the case, how would Dan Brown make a living?”

There’s that man Brown again. Many’s the time his characters find themselves in libraries of incunabula or desperate to interpret some symbol or sign. Maybe the worst thing about the late Umberto Eco is that he gave us Dan Brown, just as Margaret Thatcher bequeathed us Tony Blair.

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone

Darryl Accone is books editor of the Mail & Guardian and director of the annual M&G Literary Festival. All Under Heaven, the memoir of his (mainly) Chinese family in South Africa (David Philip, 2004), was shortlisted for the 2005 Alan Paton Award. Accone is a Fellow of the Salzburg Seminar and the International Writers Workshop of Hong Kong Baptist University. Read more from Darryl Accone

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