Umberto Eco Long Fiction Analysis
Umberto Eco’s five novels are known throughout the Western literary world. The first two, TheName of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, were best sellers. The first four novels might be called historical mysteries. They show Eco’s wide ranging knowledge of the culture and history of the ancient and medieval worlds, as well as his fascination with the scientific history of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The novels show an interest in maps, signs, logic, and the way in which texts interact. Indeed, all of his novels reveal his academic and intellectual interests to one degree or another. The narrator of his novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Giambattista Bodoni, tells the story of his own attempt to regain the memory of his existence. He remembers everything he has ever read but, curiously, because of a stroke, he has lost the facts of his own life. He sets out to recover his memories by sifting through his childhood reading.
The Name of the Rose was one of the most successful novels of the 1980’s. Its labyrinthine plot embraces many of Eco’s intellectual interests, namely semiotics, medieval religion and aesthetics, and detective stories. The narrative has a triple frame. In a preface and note, readers learn that the narrator was given a translation, by Abbé Valet, of a manuscript written in Latin by Adso of Melk. Adso, a young Benedictine novice of the monastery of Melk at the time of the story, has written of his adventure with Brother William of Baskerville. William is a learned Franciscan undertaking an important mission; Adso becomes his scribe and disciple.
The main thrust of the plot concerns the murder of several monks at a northern Italian abbey in 1327. Like Sherlock Holmes, of whom Brother William certainly reminds readers, William traces clues to find the party responsible for the murders. Involved in the plot is a book containing the second part of Aristotle’s Poetics, the part devoted to comedy. Adso chronicles William’s movements and methods as he solves the mystery with his logic, knowledge of language, and ability to find and interpret the meaning of clues.
Foucault’s Pendulum takes place in the years 1970 to 1984. Three men—Belpo, Diotallevi, and Causaubon—working at a Milan publishing house amuse themselves by putting information about occultism and conspiracy groups from manuscripts they have reviewed for publication into a computer program called The Plan. The program produces a map suggesting that the geographical point at which the powers of the earth can be controlled is at Foucault’s Pendulum in Paris. This elaborate joke is taken seriously, however, by Satanists and other occultists, who pursue the three editors—to the death in one case—to find the “secret” to world power.
The novel offers readers a staggering amount of information about subjects such as the Knights Templar, the Cabala, the Masons, the Jesuits, the Nazis, and the Rosicrucians. Some critics faulted the novel for giving too much arcane information. Others felt Eco was not fully successful in conveying the many layers of meaning he intended. One critic suggested the novel was really about the act of interpretation itself. Herbert Mitgang said in The New York Times that the book is a quest novel that is deeper and richer than The Name of the Rose. It’s a brilliant piece of research and writing—experimental and funny, literary and philosophical—that bravely ignores the conventional expectations of the reader.
The elusive, encyclopedic style was denounced by some as not appropriate for the novel form. In objection to Eco’s habit of using lengthy lists of items, Leon Wieseltier declared in The New Republic that the book “was not written, it was compiled.” Anthony Burgess, in The New York Times , called it “an encyclopedic detective story” and commented For while it is not a novel in the strict sense of the work, it is a...
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