Eco, three ways….

I read Umberto Eco’s fascinating novel The Prague Cemetery earlier this year and just loved it: his erudite and frankly mind-boggling take on the conspiracy theory was rich and very satisfying, I preferred it to his previous tilt at this particular windmill, Foucault’s Pendulum.

The Prague Cemetery is set all over 18th century Europe as various states and would-be world powers jostle and strain to gain dominance –  Jesuits plot against Freemasons, Italian priests are strangled with their own intestines, French criminals plan bombings by day and celebrate black masses by night. Every nation has its own secret service, perpetrating forgeries, plots, and massacres. Notorious documents (the Protocols of Zion etc) provide excuses to posture, proclaim and go to war  – this novel is about the life and times of one man who can produce such documents to order, for whoever can pay him. It is a rollicking and also sobering read, illustrated with articles and documents from Eco’s own collection of anti-Semitic historical literature.

Last night I read Eco’s new collection of essays Inventing the Enemy covers a wide range of topics on which he has written and lectured over the last ten years, from the discussion of ideas that have inspired his earlier novels – exploring lost islands, mythical realms, and the medieval world in the process – to a disquisition on the theme that runs through The Prague Cemetery, that every country needs an enemy, and if it doesn’t have one, must invent it. It is a very readable collection, excellently translated, as the novel is, by Richard Dixon. You get a real sense of how Eco talks and thinks, this is one of his more accessible non-fiction works – especially if you read The Prague Cemetery first.

A couple of the essays are on lists and their nature. I had spotted this on the shelf in the shop: The Infinity of Lists a few days ago and had flicked through but hadn’t been caught by it. The I read Inventing the Enemy and had another look at The Infinity of Lists. This came out a couple of years ago  but has just appeared in a very appealing small paperback. In the history of Western culture we find lists of saints, rosters of soldiers, catalogues of grotesque creatures or medicinal plants, and hordes of treasure. The poetics of lists can be found from Homer to Joyce, from the treasures of Gothic cathedrals to the fantastic landscapes of Bosch and cabinets of curiosities, until we get to Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst in the 20th century. Eco’s  illustrated essay is accompanied by a literary anthology and a wide selection of works of art illustrating the texts presented, as well as demonstrating that lists are visual not just textual.

It is very satisfying when three such different works all build on each other, and give so much background to each other the themes of documents and their various uses and mis-uses runs stronly through all of them. Eco’s learning is prodigious and his writing is both clear and challenging – after all this extra background,  I am going to read The Prague Cemetery again.


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