Saturday, May 19, 2007

Umberto Eco-Logic

One of the most fascinating writers I have read in recent times is Umberto Eco. He stands really apart - be it in his newspaper writings which are often humourous and offer a here-and-now opinion or in his serious writings on linguistics and semiotics. I have not got to read too much on the linguistic side, but did read a fascinating piece on deconstruction years ago. As a novelist again he brings in many dimensions that a normal novelist would not bring in. Weaving a story around real life happenings and historical research, making it interesting and at the same time not making it sensational is an art in itself. Therefore, when one reads "The Name of the Rose" [and its companion on how he wrote the novel], one can clearly see how different it is from something like Da Vinci Code which also pretends to draw a lot from history. Clearly the difference is evident when we read these books together. It is also possible to just keep browsing parts of Eco's novels. The passages themselves sometimes make profound sense.


His recent book "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana" is something that I took a long time to read. It has travelled with me over the past few months and it was always fascinating to re-read several of the parts of the book that I had already read. Imagine a story that starts with the protoganist suffering a peculiar memory loss. He remembers books, historical incidents but has forgotten who he is. He has to re-build his memory using old books, records, comics and albums and almost trying to re-live his childhood. Imagine if this period was a world war period. Imagine re-living history in the present.. the sense of time between a retrospect and present is so well woven that it suddenly lends itself to a totally new look at history. The concept of this book itself is so fascinating that it is actually signature Eco. I do not think anybody could have thought of such a fascinating idea, and even if one had thought about it, pulled it off with such scholarly elan, and a rare sense of humour. The book starts off by Yambo trying to discover himself. He is a dealer of antiquarian books and is said to be a tireless reader. Look at this exchange between Yambo and his wife:

"....Did I read much?"
"You are a tireless reader. With an iron memory. You know stacks of poems by heart" [Reminds me of my friend Diwakar]
"Did I write?"
"Nothing of your own. I'm a sterile genius, you used to say; in this world you either read or write, and writers write out of contempt for their colleagues, out of a desire to have something good to read once in a while."


The detail with which Eco allows Yambo to re-build his life is amazing. Everybody seems to know what his tastes are, what he likes when he goes to his usual restaurant, but he himself is unsure. Therefore he says
"If stracciatella was my favourite, I can see why: it is excellent. Discovering stracciatella at sixty is quite pleasant. What was the joke Gianni told me about Alzheimer's? The great thing about it is that you're always getting to meet new people."

Imagine the tribulations one has to go through after losing memory. When he meets his old time assistant Yambo wonders what sort of a relation he had with her. Did he have an affair? How is he expected to treat her. She has been trained all about the art of dealing in antiquarian books, now would he have to learn it all afresh from her? Whose judgement would you trust if you find a rare book in valuing it? Here is an expert who is a novice or we certainly do not know if he remembers this part of his knowledge or not. For instance, Yambo’s assistant introduces a Shakespeare’s first folio in the catalogue for a ridiculously low price, just to see if he could figure it out [p.261]. Is that to test him, or to test the limits? The details that come out in the process are really fascinating.

Yambo, in order to re-discover or re-construct his personal history moves to Solara where he has an ancestral home. There are a collection of books, magazines, comics that he can resort to – some that relate to the times of his own life and some really antique. For Yambo, nothing is contemporary or immediate or experienced, all these are either a part of the memory or are and exercise in refreshing the memory. I guess there is much more to this book than just being a novel. In order to understand all the dimensions provided by this novel, it possibly helps if one is familiar with the context that Eco brings in, familiar with some of the landmark events and it would immensely help if one were an antiquarian book dealer. I am sure Mr.KKS Murthy of Select Book Shop will find common cause with Eco. Even without that contextual knowledge the book could make a fascinating reading and that is what I am revelling in much after finishing the book.

He spends more than a week on an attic in his old house in Salora, reading several books of childhood. Eco weaves these books, their publishing history, the meanings that they would have lent at that time and interprets them as he is rebuilding his character’s personal history and making it more contemporary. Obviously being an antiquarian book dealer, the dates, the edition numbers and the physical quality of the book itself is very important. In the process Eco also gives out several pictures of books and pamphlets of those times, probably from his own personal collection, to give the reader also a feel for the “look” of the material drawn from history.

At one end he is trying to rebuild his memory with external sources – a fascinating paragraph deals with looking at atlases over time and map out how geography itself is changing [p.112]

“I leafed through the atlases: some were quite old, from before the First World War, when Germany still had African colonies, marked in bulish grey. I must have looked through a lot of atlases in my life – had I not just sold an Ortelius? But some of these exotic names had a familiar ring, as if I needed to start from these maps in order to recover others. What was it that linked my childhood to German West Africa, to the Dutch West Indies, and above all to Zanzibar? In any case, it was undeniable that there in Solara every word gave rise to another. Would I be able to climb back up the chain to the final word? What would it be? “I”?

At the other end [quite literally so] Yambo tries to rebuild his past through immensely personal experiences –

“.. I was seeing my own shit for the first time. I was now calling it shit, which I think is what people call it. Shit is the most personal and private thing we have. Anyone can get to know the rest – your facial expression, your gaze, your gestures. Even your naked body; at the beach, at the doctor’s, making love. Even your thoughts, since usually you express them, or else others guess them from the way you look at them or appear embarrassed…. Shit however is not… And since my shit at that moment must not have been all that different from what I had produced over the course of my past life, I was in that instant reuniting with my old, forgotten self, undergoing the first experience capable of merging with countless previous experiences, even those from when I did my business in the vineyards as a boy. [p.86]”

Then there are these fascinating moments in the book – what happens when you are trying to rebuild your memory through books and move away from the Homers and Flauberts and move to Stevenson. Afterall, Yambo is trying to build his childhood memories. Do they really need to be rebuilt? When he narrates some stories to the children, his wife Paola gets somewhat worried:

“If you are doing that to entertain the kids, that’s one thing, but if not, then your’re identifying too much with what you’re reading, which is to say you’re borrowing other people’s memory.[p.163]”
This of course is a matter of concern!!

There is a method in Yambo’s madness. He is trying to reconstruct his childhood in a fairly organized manner. So we get a chronological sequence of events from his past, being interpreted by him in the current. Not only do we get the chronological events of the past, but we also get an analysis of the events of the past, with a current re-interpretation. He says

“I decided to proceed using the historian’s method, subjecting evidence to cross comparison. That is to say, when I was reading my books and notebooks from the fourth grade, 1940-41, I would also browse through the newspapers from the same years and, whenever I could, put songs from those years on the record player.[p.179]”
So it is not surprising to come across material that is pro-Fascist. With the hindsight of history, suddenly Yambo reads between the lines to make more meaning from the archival texts. In a sense through Yambo, Eco is indulging himself in re-reading the history and giving a valid reason to do so and a more valid reason to take his readers along.

When you try to relive the history microscopically, you then notice not only what is happening on the war front, but more subtly on the cultural front. For instance Kundera talks about how street dogs were systematically killed following the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia in his Book of Laughter and Forgetting. He says that this might not be a significant event from the point of view of history, possibly not even important from the point of political science, but certainly an important anthropological event. The organized culling of dogs was to put the fear in the minds of the citizens and it was indeed a well thought programme.


We finid a similar incident when Yambo is browsing through the comics of that age. He says that starting December 1941 a transition started happening in the comic strips that appeared in the newspapers.

“Since it would clearly have been difficult simply to dispatch a platoon of SS or Blackshirts to occupy New York, we had, for several years already, been waging war in comic books, from which the speech balloons had disappeared, replaced by captions beneath each picture. Then – as I must have seen happen in various comics – the American characters simply began to vanish, replaced by Italian imitations, and in the end – and this, I think, was the last, most painful barrier to fall – the famous mouse was killed. The same adventures continued as if nothing had happened, but from one week to the next, without any notice, the protagonist ceased to be Topolion and became a certain Toffolion, who was a human, not a mouse, although he still had four fingers, like all Disney’s anthropomorphic animals, and his friends, though also humanized, continued to go by their original names.[p.234]”

From comics Eco then moves back to geography – it starts with atlases, but he then examines his philatelic collection to understand history better. Obviously he moves much beyond text and is deeply looking at all other symbolic elements in reconstructing the history of that period. His own memory be damned, we sometimes feel thankful to Yambo for having lost his memory so that all these boxes can be opened up afresh once again.

As you are getting more and more amazed as how history is being re-interpreted, you are in for some dark humour. What if this is not happening in Yambo’s life at all? Suddenly there is a doubt [p.307] that this might actually be happening after his death! Look at this passage:

“Then I must be dead and the afterlife is this calm, dull zone in which I will relive my past life eternally, and tough luck if it was terrible (that will be hell), otherwise it will be paradise. Oh, come on! Say you were born hunchbacked, blind, and deaf-mute, or that the ones you loved died like flies around you, parents, wife…. Does that mean that your afterlife will be nothing but the repetition, varied but continuous of all you suffered in your earthly life?”[p.308]

But as the book ends there are more and more questions that Eco poses before us. As I mentioned the dark humour above, there is a basic doubt as to whether Yambo was indeed ill, he indeed lost his memory or was this all a myth. For instance [in page 423] when Yambo is in high school he hears a powerful voice

“What you shall see, feel free to write it in your book, because no one will read it, because you are only dreaming that you are writing it!”
– So what is Yambo trying to recollect?
“But who can say that everything I remembered in the course of this sleep really happened? Maybe my mother and my father had different faces, maybe Dr.Osimo never existed, not Angelo Bear, and I never lived through the night in the Gorge. Worse, I dreamed even that I woke up in a hospital, that I lost my memory, that I had a wife named Paola, two daughters, and three grandkids. I never lost my memory, and some other man – God knows who – who by some accident finds himself in this state [coma or limbo], and all these figures have been optical illusions…..”
Facts or dreams? Does this all sound like a Ramanujam poem?

The book opens up immense possibilities of narration – the ways of telling a story. For a person who would be interested in the craft of story telling this could be a treasure house of possibilities. It weaves history, geography, experience, memory, hallucination, dreams all into the text opening up various possibilities for interpretation. At the same time, what struck me about this entire narration was about the futility of the form “Autobiography”. Possibly all autobiographies are some dreams of the past; imagined experiences; and an amalgam of truth and imagination. This possibility sometimes opens up the immense potential of the written word, and sometimes highlights the futility of it all. I keep going back to the book for the brilliant passages here and there, and clearly Eco has unseated Kundera as my favourite writer!! As a footnote I should also add, this is possibly one of the rare novels that has a full fledged list of references – the only link to reality of the printed word!

As I end some quotes from the book which I enjoyed:

“Try to picture it: some guy appears to Moses, or actually he doesn’t even really appear, a voice comes from who knows where, and then Moses goes and tells his people that they have to obey the commandments because they come from God. But who says they come from God? That voice: ‘I am the Lord thy God.’ And what if he wasn’t? Imagine if I stop you on the street and say I’m a plain clothes carabiniere and you have to pay me a ten-lira fine because no one’s allowed on the street.[p343]

“No actually I do believe it was God. I’m just saying he used a trick. He’s always done that: you have to believe in the Bible because it’s inspired by God, but who tells you the Bible’s inspired by God. The Bible. See the problem?[p343]

“It’s simple, it just never occurred to anyone before: God is evil. Why do priests say God is good? Because he created us. But that’s precisely why he’s evil. God doesn’t have evil the way we have a headache. God is evil. Maybe, seeing as he’s eternal, he wasn’t evil billions of years ago. Maybe he became that way, like kids who et bored in the summer and start tearing the wings off flies, to pass the time. Notice how if you think that God is evil, the whole question of Evil becomes crystal clear.”[p.351]