Umberto Eco died in 2016, and this book was published in Italy under the title Papé Satàn Aleppe in the same year. The original title (the English one is the subtitle in the Italian) refers to a very ambiguous line in Dante that no-one really understands. Eco’s last novel, Numero Zero, seemed to me to be a return to the form of The Name Of The Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, after a number of works which might charitably be described as frolics of his own. His novelistic career had always run in tandem with his academic, non-fiction and journalistic work. But the reader can only leave this volume with a sense of disappointment and frustration.
The book announces at the outset that it is a compilation of various articles which Eco wrote fortnightly for the magazine L’Espresso, in his column “La bustina di Minerva”. Gleefully and shamelessly, he refers to them as “jottings”, “short notes” and “digressions on ideas come to mind”.
Now, had I been sitting, once every 14 days, with an espresso and L’Espresso, I would probably have found much of the material interesting and provocative. But a column is not the same as a book. And a lot of columns put together do not make a book.
Eco had at least tried to arrange them in some semblance of order, and included a rather faint-hearted apology for repetitions. But take page 147 in a piece on female philosophers: as well as the well-known Hypatia of Alexandria he mentions “Diotima the Socratic, Arete of Cyrene, Nicarete of Megara, Hipparchia the Cynic, Theodora the Peripatetic (in the philosophical sense of the word), Leontia the Epicurean and Themistoclea the Pythagorean”. Skip forward to page 153 and in a piece called “Husbands of unknown wives” we read about “Diotima the Socratic, Arete of Cyrene, Nicarete of Megara, Hipparchia the Cynic, Theodora the Peripatetic (in the philosophical sense of the word), Leontia the Epicurean and Themistoclea the Pythagorean”. Cut and paste? Will this do, Ed? Oh, and a few pages later we have another piece on Hypatia of Alexandria.
While one might laud Eco’s championing of relatively little-known female philosophers, his tendency to refer to girls rather than women and make frequent analogies to prostitution, and a kind of salacious bass note in many of these thrown-off off-cuts, rather undermine the feminist credentials.
Eco structured the book around topics – and they are very Eco concerns. There are five pieces on “cell phones” (how quaint!) and 13 on the internet. Both make Eco a bit grumpy. There are five on conspiracy theories in which he says conspiracy theories are foolish. There are 17 on mass media, even though some of them would have been better in the section “On Books, Etc”. Indeed, one of the best pieces is on the chronology of the Nero Wolfe novels by Rex Stout, oddly placed in the mass media section. Yet, at the same time, it reveals one of the aspects that mar the whole book. Widely renowned as a “semiotician” and public intellectual, I was surprised at the intellectual paucity of the article. So Nero and Archie, as well as Fritz, Theodore, Saul and Purley Stebbins, don’t seem to age over the 33 novels? One wonders what poor Eco would make of Oor Wullie, who must be due his pensioner’s bus pass by now.
Eco knows a lot of things, but few of them deeply. When he turns to politics, he is blasé and enraged at the same time. There is a lot of “on one hand this, on the other that”. What really stirs his ire is when someone has said something about him with which he disagrees, and despite maintaining the old Voltaire line about “defending to the death your right to say it”, he harrumphs and flusters. His essays on religion are pretty anodyne stuff; yes, it would be nice if more young people knew the Biblical stories – it helps when you are reading Milton – and no, having a new Crusade is not a good idea. Well, blow me down with a feather. Terrorism is a terrible thing, but we have to admit we caused the conditions which allowed it to thrive. Crikey! Now there’s a new thought. There is almost an element of comedy in pieces like “No, it’s not pollution, it’s impurities in the air” – a satire of George W Bush’s linguistic mishaps – or “Conciliatory oxymorons” on political sleight-of-hand, since Eco repeatedly says he is not a prophet, but these fulminations seem almost sweetly naïve given the current incumbent of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
This is a regrettable book. It taints the memory of how good those first novels, and the final one, were. Eco comes across almost like Stephen Fry – a sort of intellectual that we all want to like but secretly find infuriating. Parts of it aim to be a contemporary version of Roland Barthes’ Mythologies, where he applied critical insight to modern culture. If one does want that, I would recommend Peter Conrad’s excellent radio series, 21st Century Mythologies. It is wittier and wintrier.
Chronicles Of A Liquid Society, by Umberto Eco, Harvill Secker, £18.99