Written by – Chetan* : The demise of Italian writer – Umberto Eco – at the age of eighty four is an immense loss to the literary world and a serious setback to his readers. His most famous novel, The Name of the Rose(1980), is a masterpiece of postmodern fiction.It is one of the bestsellingbooks that dismantle stereotypical conception about detective fiction. Unlike the formulaic crime novels, The Name of the Rose is singular in its own ways because Eco shows the coexistence of science,religion, sectarian antagonism and philosophical ideas.The book claims to reproduce faithfully a fourteenth-century manuscript found in the monastery of Melk.It poses several questions for the reader when Eco reveals in the Preface that “he was given a book on August 16, 1968 by a certain AbbéVallet.”(Eco 1986; 5) With such a revelation, the reader is stupefied whether to receive the novel as an authentic representation of the neglected past or treat it as a purely fictional piece. It also opens a new debate on the capturing of past in linguistic signs and the articulation of history that apparently overlooks the marginalized. Hence, Eco seems to dig deep into the past to recover the unspoken and unwritten histories. He is engaged in giving voice tomutes and suppressed in the Middle Ages.
With such a beginning, The Name of the Rose resembles the old Greek philosophical riddle called ‘The Paradox of the Cretan Liar.’ The paradox was formulated by Eubulides in the fourth century BCE around the primary statement –“All Cretans are liars.”Here, Eco is a Cretan liar because he plays with the sentiments of readers. Apart from this, the beauty of the novel is found in critical concepts likescientific knowledge and heresy.
Eco’s second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, was published in 1988. The novel gives birth to several assumptions about its sources like Foucault’s Pendulum in Paris museum and the French thinker Michael Foucault. Not only this, one of the characters seems to have been borrowed from Middlemarch – the famous English novel by George Eliot. Similar to The Name of the Rose, the novel re-launches the identical debates – an attempt to revisit the Middle Ages and the reconstruction of past in the present. The novel has a complex plot narrated in flashback, with focus on the three independent editors involved in creating a game called ‘The Plan.’ The game basically sets a chord in various conspiracy theories about The Knight Templers. These theories are given by both serious and hack writers obsessed with vanity press. Some of the secret underground organizations take ‘The Plan’ seriously, believing that it would reveal the truth of ‘The Knight Templers.’
In his endeavor to produce an intricate postmodern fiction on the secret organizations in the Middle Ages, Eco is conscious of the fact not to close Foucault’s Pendulum with a properending. He renders the readers in a baffling state so that they can end the novel as per their choices. It is said that Foucault’s Pendulum is a landmark text that inspired new semiotic writers like Dan Brown whose well-known novel, Da Vinci Code, encapsulates the same themes.
The readers are curious to know how Eco manages to produce such complex but captivating works. Eco is a voracious reader of medieval history and philosophical ideas that enable him to synthesize them in his fiction. He achieves an objective to show that the past repeat itself albeit in a different form. To understand the cause, we need to analyze his critical essay “Towards a New Middle Ages” published in On Signs (1985) edited by Marshall Blonsky. The essay is based on medievalism and its revival in the contemporary period. The relationship between the past and the present is not limited to the temporal units. The past and the present exist together..
Eco’s fictional works bind the readers with exquisite symbols emanate from semiotics. These symbols encapsulate coded meanings that need to be decoded to comprehend any text. However, the pervasive acceptance of new philosophical ideas and literary theories develops a notion that each text comprises multiple layers of meanings. More specifically, the popularity of deconstruction leads to limitless interpretations of texts. Eco addresses this concern in his three lectures titled –“Interpretation and Overinterpretation: World, History, Texts” – given at Cambridge University in 1980. He highlights that the reader response theory deals with the intention of author and reader, but it does not take into account the intention of the text. His other works include The Prague Cemetery (2011), The Infinity of Listss (2009), Turning Back the Clock (2008),On Ugliness (2007),The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005),Mouse or Rat(2004), Baudolino(2002),and The Island of the Day Before (1995).
Considering the vividness of his works, Eco’s death is an irrecoverable loss to the literary world. His demise created a vacuum which the readers interested in semiotics would find irreplaceable. The relevance of Eco could be ascertained from the fact that his works are incorporated into canonical literature. Even the university departments and colleges across the world integrate them in courses and papers on Postmodernism and Poststructuralism.
- Blonsky, Marshall. ed. On Signs. Oxford: Basil Blackwell 1985. Print.
- Eco. Umberto.Foucault’s Pendulum. Trans. William Weaver. Warner CommunicationCompany, 2001. Print.
- ____________. “Interpretation and Overinterpretation: World, History, Texts.” The Tanner Lectures on Human Values. Google Search. Web. 12 Mar. 2013.
- ____________. The Name of the Rose. Trans. William Weaver. New York: Warner Communication Company, 1986. Print.
- Eliot, George. Middlemarch. London: Penguin Books Ltd. 1965. Print
*PhD Student at Department of English, Delhi University.