Eco and the Funnymen

Novelist Umberto Eco talks about Homer, the Internet, comic books—and ladies' shoes

For the record, Umberto Eco is an avid user of the Internet but he's not a fanatic. "I've never downloaded an MP3," confesses the Italian author-semiotician. "And I don't surf late at night in some hallucinatory way." On most days, Eco logs on just to check his e-mail and the weather. In the evenings, he'll connect to a radio station for a little background music. Once in a while, he'll buy a sentimental knickknack: a comic book from his youth or a favorite video game from the '70s. Explains the writer: "I use the Internet in the same way I use my personal library—I'm in a constant state of coming and going."

Eco-philes know the relevance that the online medium has for the 73-year-old author, even if the public will forever associate him with such medieval-themed doorstops as The Name of the Rose and Baudolino. His latest book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Harcourt), may just be his most hypertextual novel to date—a sprawling network of mnemonic associations ripped straight from a highly troubled brain. Yambo, an antiquarian bookseller, awakens one day to find he's lost his memory, unable to recognize his wife or navigate the streets of his native Milan. In an ironic twist, he has retained total recall of every book he's read and drops literary quotations with savant-like ease. An afternoon snack prompts him to utter, "The distinctive scent of bitter almond . . . " (from García Márquez's Love in the Time of Cholera), while a meeting with a friend inspires "Call me . . . Ishmael?"

In the Eco-ian universe, books aren't merely stand-alone islands to be traversed in linear fashion; they are nodes in an exponentially expanding extranet. To read one book, you sometimes have to pass through several others, accumulating countless references and subtexts along the way. "We've been reading books in a hypertextual way ever since Homer," Eco says. "We read a page and then we jump, especially when we're rereading it. Think of the Bible. When people read it, they're always jumping here and there, constantly connecting various quotations."

On a certain level, all of Eco's novels are texts of texts—literary snippets (sometimes chunks) synergistically arranged to form an alternate, labyrinthine reality. In Foucault's Pendulum, a pair of literary editors and an academic conspire to link various conspiracy theories throughout history into a giant über-conspiracy. Feeding various manuscripts into a supercomputer, they create an intertextual theory so complex that it quickly eludes rational human intelligence. (Many readers experienced a similar befuddlement with the novel itself.)

Arranged in three neat sections, Mysterious Flame quickly reveals itself to be as knotty as anything Eco's written. The novel begins with Yambo unsuccessfully sifting through the debris of his total system failure. Overwhelmed by faces and names, he escapes to his boyhood home in the Italian Piedmont, where he confronts a different inundation—the novellas and comic books from his adolescence. The second section has Yambo delving into this kitsch pool of superheroes, damsels in distress, and cartoonish fascists—relics of Italy's Mussolini generation. (One such relic gives the novel its title.) In the final section, Yambo suffers a relapse and is comatose, his still-active mind resurrecting early-childhood memories and hyperlinking them to the present.

"Obviously, when you write a novel about memory, you have the ghost of Proust blackmailing you," says Eco. "But this isn't the case here. Proust goes inside himself to retrieve personal memories, while my character has no personal memories, or madeleines, and is dealing with collective, mineral memorabilia. He's working with external material, not internal material." Eco has reproduced much of this "mineral memory" in the form of illustrations—period book covers, movie posters, and propa-ganda material. "The graphics don't illustrate what I've already verbally described," he explains. "They have the function of an 'etcetera,' to give the impression of the abundance of material that I found in my attic."

Eco says he structured Mysterious Flame to mimic the free-associative behavior of electronic navigation. (Indeed, his latest nonfiction book to be published stateside, The History of Beauty, was originally conceived as a CD-ROM.) But Eco stops short when asked about the all too real physical convergence of books and online matter. "I'm very skeptical about that," he says. "The real function of a novel is to give the reader the impression that destiny can't be altered. With electronic material, you can change it whenever you want. But a novel tells you that life can't be changed. That's its power." Ever the pragmatist, he adds: "The book form can be useful during a blackout, or sitting on the branch of a tree, or maybe when making love."

In its own way, Mysterious Flame embodies Eco's ambivalence toward new media. Yambo's childhood memories emerge wiki-like, each random fragment lodging itself in his hollowed-out identity.

But memory doubly serves as a lethal cocoon, imprisoning Yambo within himself and rendering human contact impossible. For Eco, the Internet is similarly double-edged. "If you and I rely on the Encyclopaedia Britannica, we have a common ground for interaction," he explains. "But once we start learning exclusively through the Internet, you risk creating your own personal encyclopedia, which will be different from others'."

A strange critique coming from someone who's perhaps written his most inward-gazing novel. Early reviews have dismissed Mysterious Flame as nostalgic and at times so personal as to be impenetrable. Eco concedes he wrote it with his own generation in mind. "It's a book for Italian people of my age," he says. "When I was in New York 30 years ago, I saw a shop with a sign that said it was selling 'Shoes for Spanish-Speaking Fat Ladies.' There was a special market for them! So I thought of my book in this way."

Eco points out the novel has been a success throughout Europe and adds, with winking immodesty, "We have never been to Troy but by reading Homer, we feel like we've always been there. So if Homer succeeded in doing so, why not me?"

No doubt for Eco, books, in all their immutable glory, will outlast any electronic medium. As he once wrote, "Books belong to those kinds of instruments that, once invented, have not been further improved because they are already alright, such as the hammer, the knife, spoon or scissors." Be that as it may, Eco clearly enjoys the occasional tech musing. Nearly 20 years ago, he compared Apple's Macintosh and Microsoft DOS to Catholicism and Protestantism, respectively. How would he characterize today's Internet? "We could say that the World Wide Web aspires to be God. In The Divine Comedy, Dante looks directly at God and sees a single volume containing all the sheets in the universe. God is for him the totality of wisdom and information. But the Internet, while being well-informed, may be too much informed. It can't distinguish good from evil. So I'd say that if the Web is God, it would be a very stupid God!"

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