by Umberto Eco
I enjoyed Eco’s The Name of the Rose enough to where I was actually looking forward to this rather thick read, and it is very much like that other book, “only more so”. Fundamentally, it’s a kind of mystery, and a tale of group madness and Eco really knows how to put a story like that together.
At the same time, if Rose was steeped in 14th century medieval history, this book is steeped in six hundred years or more of conspiracy theories. Much like Rose it’s not actually a “hard read” in the Joyce-ian sense: The grammar is straightforward and the author doesn’t use language to try to obscure his meaning.
But, man, oh, man. It’s not enough to know about the Templars, the Rosicrucians, the Masons, Kabbalah, alchemy and other European delusions. The author spends a chunk of the book in Brazil and details distinctions between the various forms of (what most of us would probably call) voodoo.
I noticed something as the book wore on: Latin and French weren’t translated but German and old English were. I take this to mean Eco understood Latin and French, but not German and Old English. So his audience was limited to people who understood those languages. And who also possess a highly idiosyncratic subset of knowledge. You could probably fit everyone in the world who could read this book without a ton of references into a small room. I doubt it was actually read much at all when it came out.
But I knew, going in, that this would be the case, so it didn’t bother me. (It did take me longer to read because I’ve been trying to avoid looking at screens before bed, and I do most of my reading before bed.) If you wanted a bibliography of historical conspiracy material, this would serve.
What did start to bother me toward the end of the book was Eco’s godlessness. I had this problem with Rose because I didn’t feel like he actually understood sincere religious belief but (perhaps ironically) it bothered me more here, because all of his characters are of the same sort of areligious mold, and most of their thrashing about seems to be the result of this.
Eco was obviously aware of this. A quote beginning a late chapter says something about the loss of faith in God results in a search for meaning through conspiracy. That didn’t make it any less annoying to me, especially as regards to the main character’s search for meaning ending in a rather diminished and prosaic fashion, with no small overtones of nihilism.
It’s not bad, as a book. Eco could plot, he could write, he could write serviceable male characters. (His female characters strike me as implausible, except in how the male characters regard them.) He uses that most awful of authorial cheats, the hallucinogen, to create a sense of wonder that he can then back out of or use to create doubt in the reader’s mind about whether something supernatural is occurring. (This is the literary equivalent of pulling off the mask in “Scooby Doo”.)
But ultimately, I wondered who Eco’s audience was, and I came to believe it was: himself, and people who had his exact same knowledge of esoterica, i.e., himself. And I can’t believe most people are going to find the work involved reading this to be sufficiently rewarded by the story itself. If you’re like me (and I know I am) and you like the research aspect, you’ll probably enjoy the overall effect.
But the difference between me and Eco is that I know there aren’t a lot of people like me. 😉