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The reader in novelist Umberto Eco

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The reader in novelist Umberto Eco

It was odd, I thought, that the death of Harper Lee didn’t make headlines in The New York Times. The passing away of the author of a beloved book is exactly the kind of thing that makes top news, and yet the focus of the NYT front page that morning was the death of Umberto Eco, with a good-sized photo.

And on the same page, but much below, almost as an inset, was notice of Harper Lee dying at 89. The reason, I think, for muting the notice (there was a substantial obit later) was the publicity storm unleashed by the publication of her second book, Go Set a Watchman, a year before. For nearly eight months it took up space in the media daily. Its publication was surrounded by controversy, speculation, high excitement and skepticism.

The news that there was such a manuscript from the reclusive Lee who was not meant to have written anything else after To Kill a Mockingbird became a talking point in the media to focus on her life and legacy. And, over the course of a year, too many profiles, stories, and critical appraisals flooded newspapers, magazines and blogs. Resulting, of course, in overkill; and her death now is not the significant event it would have normally been. And so that morning, Umberto Eco’s death seemed more noteworthy to headline.

Eco has gone without giving us a sequel (or a prequel) to The Name of the Rose. Though many of his later novels are admired, he never attempted another populist thriller like his medieval detective story. He stopped himself from entertaining us in this way, with a ripping, intellectual murder mystery. After Rose, my favourite Eco novel is The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Yambo, the antiquarian book dealer, wakes up from a coma and remembers only the books he has read. Not his name, not his job, not his wife. Just whole chunks from books. This is the mischievous premise of the strange book. From page one, Eco delights us with planting pop culture references without telling us from which book or movie or comic book they come from, so that we can have fun spotting them for ourselves.

Even if you don’t get around to reading all of the book, just the illustrations will keep you amused. Black and white and colour pictures from highbrow and popular culture — of Flash Gordon, Phantom, Mandrake, Fantômas, Verne, Wells, Dumas. Lovely volumes with an ancient air, cigarette boxes with exotic foreign-sounding names (including Gold Flake!), postage stamps and the original drawings that accompanied the Sherlock Holmes stories in The Strand.

I was lucky enough to find a signed first edition (it was not as expensive as it could have been, the true first being the Italian edition) of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona in the rare books floor at the Strand, New York, in May 2007. Now, admittedly, the truly great find would have been a signed edition of The Name of the Rose. But considering any signed copy of an Eco book is precious, especially now that he is no more, it was a nice little thing to run into. And its provenance? Eco had visited Strand and they had got him to sign as many copies as they could.

The illustrations and plates in this book, so rich and magical and nostalgic, alone are worth the price of the book, but, happily, even the text is a joy. This is the book Eco has been reaching to write all along: a story with words and pictures. Yambo, the rare Milanese book-dealer hero of the book (a fictitious version of Eco himself?), can only recall words, not images! Each antiquarian book in Yambo’s collection (numbering more than 5,000) is 500 years old and more expensive than a Porsche. His wife calls him a “tireless reader” with an “iron memory.”

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana goes on a bit too long, and the brisk pacing, the buoyant comic tone and the pop-culture-loaded first part of the book gives way to (meandering, and slowly-paced) history, romance and a detailed description of Eco’s childhood reading. Is Eco, the sly entertainer, hinting that readers invent the books they read and even their own characters?

Reading this odd and beguiling ode to childhood reading, all book lovers will recognise some part of themselves in Yambo, the tireless reader who loves even the sound and feel of the thumb flipping the pages of a book in reverse. This is the reader as hero, the reader as character, and the reader who becomes the book.

I always thought it was a great pity Eco did not return to tell us more of the exploits of William of Baskerville, his Franciscan Sherlock Holmes and book-loving monk with formidable detective powers. The Name of the Rose kicked off a new genre: the erudite medieval mystery, but none of its imitators could do what Eco had managed so expertly and stylishly: mixing low and highbrow plots and themes with such jolly and startling scholarship.

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