Happy Birthday, Umberto Eco: An Overview Of A Great Author’s Work

This past Tuesday (the 5th of January) was the birthday of a significant Italian writer, semiotician, linguist, philosopher, essayist, and literary critic. His name is Umberto Eco, and he is considered to be one of the greatest intellectuals of our time. Eco's works have left a permanent mark in the canon of world literature. We have prepared an overview of his various works, so you can choose your future readings based on your preferences. Without any exaggeration, however, we can say that all of them are definitely worth your time as unique works of art.

In order for you to understand the core of Eco’s work, we will first discuss some of the basic concepts of his writings. Eco’s work is all about Postmodernism, which means he has a critical approach towards the modern world and culture, and he uses his art to question, revise, and destabilize traditional perspectives on language, identity, literature – tradition in general. Postmodernism is a strong reaction to a culture that seems incapable of keeping pace with time. It is a reaction to a culture that, at some point, stopped giving birth to much needed innovations. Another important term to be discussed is intertextuality. This term was coined by Julia Kristeva in the late sixties. Kristeva points out that one text is never finished and never a closed structure, but instead it is always in the process of forming itself. In this process, it is not just about the text and the author, but there is a third component to it: the reader himself. One text is never a product of just one writer, but it is a unique compilation of texts that already exist. So, a book exists as a work of art, but is actually a space where different existing texts intersect and overlap. Postmodernism and intertextuality are not mutually exclusive. On the contrary, Postmodernism tends to deny tradition, but cannot escape it.

Eco is a semiotician, but what exactly is semiotics? According to the definition, semiotics is the science of signs and sign processes (semiosis), indication, designation, likeness, analogy, metaphor, symbolism, signification, and communication. In layman terms, it perceives the whole world through signs and complex ways of communication. It is closely related to the notions of culture and culture’s codes, it has its rules and mechanisms.

Umberto Eco is best known for his four novels: The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before, and The Prague Cemetery.

In the year 1980, Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose was published and became a huge success. It is considered to be one of the greatest literary works of Postmodernism, and it is the clearest proof of the author’s rich and versatile education. As a true erudite, Eco shows great knowledge of history, especially in the field of medival studies, and a thorough knowledge of the Bible and literary theory. The Name of the Rose is defined as a historical mystery novel. Eco creates a world made of history and fiction, an artistic history that is so convincing, we can all believe in it. The world Eco offers to us is fully constructed and logical. The novel is set in the 14th century, in one abbey. You can even see a detailed architectual plan of it, with all its corridors and labyrinths. Eco provided this map in the novel. The abbey gets agitated when a suicide occurs. As time goes by, several unexplainable deaths occur within the abbey’s walls. Investigating these disturbing events, William of Baskerville (the main character, with a remarkable capacity for logical thinking) comes to the conclusion that the lost part of Aristotle’s Poetics may be the answer to these mysteries. In the world of fiction, Eco offers one possible truth: this part was deliberately hidden from the public eye, since it speaks about comedy and is very affirmative about laughter. In actual history, the way this part of the Poetics vanished was never fully explained. The novel is intriguing, layered, and fully engrossing. This book will make you question a lot of things and will do it in an extremely engaging way, that’s why it is one of the greatest fiction works you’ll ever read. As it is said in the novel:

Books are not made to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn’t ask ourselves what it says but what it means…

Eight years after The Name of the Rose, Eco published Foucault’s Pendulum, another mystery novel, or as others have defined it – a work of speculative fiction. The title is a reference to Leon Foucault, a French physicist known for his invention of the Foucault pendulum, a device demonstrating the effect of the Earth’s rotation. This novel also shows the author’s in-depth knowledge of medieval times and its philosophy, especially the Knights Templar. The novel is about three self-published authors who have been studying writings about occult theories and have decided to create their own conspiracy theory. It all starts as a game, which they’ve called The Plan. With time, the psychology of the game has erased the line separating fiction and reality, and some of the players have forgotten that it is just a game. Just as he did in The Name of the Rose, Eco uses historical facts and rearranges them, creating a unique work of art. He offers us not just fictional history, but a possible actual history, too. The detailed map, made by the three authors as a joke, connects many secret societies (such as the afore-mentioned Knights Templar, but also the Bavarian Illuminati, the Jesuits, the Freemasons, and many more) and suggests a geographical point from which the total energy of the world can be controlled. It is located beneath Foucault’s pendulum in the Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. A harmless game invented by three intellectuals turns into a dangerous reality. The novel says:

I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.

In 1994, Eco published his third novel, called The Island of the Day Before. The novel is set in the 17th century and has a Robinson Crusoe-like beginning. The main character, Roberto della Griva, wakes up to find himself as the only survivor of a shipwreck. He can see land before him, but he understands that it is too far for him to swim to it. Instead, he takes a different journey. He walks through cabinets and retrospectively remembers the days of his youth. He engages in a dialogue with his imaginary evil twin brother; and through these conversations, he reconciles his past and his present. Thinking about his youth leads him to contemplate the mystery of a lost longitude. The whole novel is written in the manner of a lost manuscript: the story is published by a man who found Griva’s papers in a diary-like form. Griva’s contemplations can really make us think about all those small and large things that happen to us, but we may not even be aware of the great impact they have on us. There is a beautiful and painful thought related to that. It has to do with Griva’s deceased father:

He thought he would become accustomed to the idea, not yet understanding that it is useless to become accustomed to the loss of a father, for it will never happen a second time: might as well leave the wound open.   

The Prague Cemetery is a novel Eco published in 2010. Eco offers us new concpiracy theories and mysteries, but in a more humorous way. The French Revolution was actually plotted by the Knights Templar, the Bavarian Illuminati, and the Jacobins, while the Jews are the masterminds of all operations. The character of Simone Simonini is in the focus of the story, a law student soon to become a professional forger. Simonini is the only fictional character in the novel, while the others are real historical personas, but put in different contexts and times. This gave Eco freedom to reinterpret history and show how historical facts are often just arbitrary, or truths imposed by unknown, powerful authorities. If you are still not convinced you should plunge into reading this piece, keeping in mind that it has been declared as the best of Eco’s novels, right after The Name of the Rose. And here’s a quote from it, just to motivate you:

Libraries are fascinating places; sometimes you feel you are under the canopy of a railway station, and when you read books about exotic places there’s a feeling of traveling to distant lands.

Besides these four novels, Eco has also had a fair succsess with three of his other novels: Baudolino (2000), The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004) and Zero (2015). Eco has also published numerous non-fiction works in the fields of aesthetics, linguistics, philosophy, semiotics, and the theory of literature. Three of his most interesting non-fictional books include On Beauty (2004), On Ugliness (2007), and Infinity Lists (2009). All of these are conceived as small encyclopedias, with an interdisciplinary approach, literature, and the history of art combined. For example, in his book On Ugliness, Eco offers us an overview of how aesthetics have changed through history – from ugliness in the Classical world to the Avant-Garde and the triumph of Ugliness in modern times, and today.

The works of Umberto Eco are extremely interesting and versatile. Sure, his novels tend to have mysteries in their narrative thread, but they are completely different from each other and truly unique. What is there left to say but, happy birthday Mr. Eco, and thank you for sharing your wonderful worlds with us!

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