Umberto Eco's death one week ago is a reminder that writers are mortal too. Even someone whose deep culture and extraordinary fresh spirit may sound outwordly in our busy century. His books, starting with the Name of the Rose published at 48, are an example of complicated mysteries going beyond the trivial shot and kill. At certain extents, they put into question worlds and require complex intellectual abilities to solve.
I first heard about him in the late 1980s, when I was still living in a country where books were forbidden. My mother, who was moved only by high intellectual emotions, succeeded to obtain an underground copy, a very bad translation printed on horrible paper. She read it very fast because other people were probably waiting for the book too and for the next weeks, they kept discussing about it during the intellectual underground meetings of the time. I was not privy to their debates, as they used to keep children at bay for safety reasons - a child can eventually unconscioulsy slip openly at school or who knows where some of the political arguments against the dictatorship - but as soon as I was independent and in a free country, I read Eco. Maybe at the time and given the political fuss made in the old country about, the book had not changed tremendously my life, but I have found Eco interesting and continued to read his other books too.
There are a couple of lessons I learned from my years spent reading or thinking about him that made my bookish life more sounding:
- Always rely on good translations and, if not, make an effort and learn the language the books were written. As for now, I mostly relied on good English and German translations, using the Italian for some of the essays. Learning Italian is part of my improvement plans for the next 12 months and maybe I can try to read the Name of the Rose in its original language.
- Complex literary stories can still be successful. There is a high production of simple books, with a relatively simple story, but the more difficult the narrative looks the more appealing for the reader.
- It is not a deadline for achieving literary success. Eco entered the literary stage at only 48 and he continued writing for the almost nearly 40 more years. I always wondered why he was not considered for the Nobel prize as his work is a dramatic contribution to the humanity.
- The Renaissance man can survive and develop in our technology savvy century. Actually, the ways in which science expanded and the opportunities offered by social networks can pave the way for more knowledge and a deeper understanding of reality.
- It is possible to integrate successfully complicated Jewish topics as the Kabbalah into non-Jewish literature. Eco's guide into specific Jewish reading was Moshe Idel that I had the opportunity to listen to a couple of times. In Foucault's Pendulum he made Kabbalistic complex topics part of the story in a very careful way without trivializing the subject, as it happens when the issue is approached by the big literature.