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Nostalgia and Laughter: Remembering Umberto Eco

Salman Rushdie, Siri Hustvedt, Gianni Riotta, and Edoardo Ballerini tell stories of the scholar and the man

Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco. Photo: Alessio Jacona via Flickr

Two months after the passing of renowned essayist and novelist, literary critic, philosopher, and semiotician, the Italian Cultural Institute hosts a conversation to commemorate Umberto Eco, Italian polymath

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The Italian Cultural Institute in collaboration with the PEN World Voices Festival remembered Umberto Eco on April 29 through nostalgia and laughter with essayist and novelist Salman Rushdie, writer and essayist Siri Hustvedt, and journalist and student of Eco, Gianni Riotta. The event concluded with select readings from The Name of the Rose: actor Edoardo Ballerini reading in English, and Director if the Italian Culture Institute Giorgio van Straten, in Italian.

The renown British Indian novelist opened the evening by discussing an Eco he never met, that is, the writer Eco after the publication of his second novel. Despite the assurance of Salman Rushdie’s literary immortality by TheNew York Times, fans of Umberto Eco will also remember Rushdie for his scathing review of Foucault’s Pendulum the London Observer. “Humorless, devoid of character, entirely free of anything resembling a credible spoken word, and mind-numbingly full of gobbledygook of all sorts he stated unabashedly. Still today, although apologizing retrospectively to his now friend and follow musketeer (the third was Mario Vargas Llosa―enemies who, before they had ever met, criticised the other and then became devoted friends), Rushdie confirmed “my opinion of Foucault’s Pendulum has not changed.”

Rushdie’s opinions on the other works of his friend, in particular The Name of the Rose―a novel that sold over 50 million copies worldwide and was later adapted to the big screen starring Sean Connery―extoled and praised Eco’s vision, inspired by images more than words. For example, Baudolino was inspired by the burning of Constantinople; and The Island of the Day Before by the International Date Line (imagine swimming into yesterday to meet the girl you love). The monastery library, one of the controlling metaphors of The Name of the Rose, was inspired by two great libraries: Sterling at Yale and Robarts at the University of Toronto (i.e., my alma mater), with a blind librarian named Jorge da Burgos (reminiscent of Argentine Borges) and reference to a book in the library by “Umberto di Bologna” (Eco himself, clearly time-travelling). Rushdie was astounded by this visual side of Eco: “All almost of his works had their origin in visual images… For a writer of such profound linguistic nature to have found his inspiration in images is remarkable.” 

Unlike Rushdie who talked about his brilliant friend Eco whom he eventually met yet with whom he didn’t always get along, Siri Hustvedt started her talk, stating she “did not know Umberto Eco the man, but knew him through his work.” Her introduction to Eco came through her graduate studies in English at Columbia through his theory of semiotics (aka the study of signs) in his numerous non-fiction works that deal with language, art and dissertation writing. When The Name of the Rose was published, Hustvedt found herself, book in hand, falling prey to a bias of compartmentalizing knowledge and expertise. “Isn’t it interesting that there are two Italians with the name Umberto Eco: the semiotician and this guy, the novelist? It never occurred to me that the two were one in the same.” And thus was her new field of research – the concept of the semiotic novel.

“Before Google, there was Umberto Eco,” exclaimed Gianni Riotta, as he anecdotally spoke of Umberto the academic, the writer and the man, whom he met at the age of 17, while working at Il manifesto where Eco wrote under the pseudonym Dedalus. “It was impossible to talk to Umberto Eco without some door opening in your mind and in your life.”

Riotta, Eco’s student, shared stories with humor and admiration. His mentor would never allow him (or anyone)  to borrow any of his over 50,000 books, but always welcomed Riotta to read them at his home, which he opened up to all his friends, to nourish their minds as well as their bellies (enough to devour a book). Riotta would be humbled by the company he was fortunate to have kept and with whom he discussed everything from the arts to sciences. “Umberto – Riotta reiterated – was an immensely learned man and he would always try to get you to learn different and new things.” Eco was unafraid to be controversial, “I have lost the freedom of not having an opinion” he would say, even fighting with Pier Paolo Pasolini on homosexuality and birth right.

Then, there’s Eco the comedian. Riotta struggled to find a joke that wouldn’t offend the audience, since many of Eco’s jokes were about Sicilians (a direct shot at Riotta), gays, minorities… Did you ever hear the one about the two theologians? During prayer, a Dominican sees the Jesuit puffing away at a Cuban cigar. He approaches the Jesuit and asks why he allowed to smoke. The Dominican recounts what happened when he spoke to the Holy Father about smoking during prayer. The Holy Father went into a fit: “Prayer is sacred, you cannot mingle it with earthly pleasures.” The Jesuit explained that he instead asked the Holy Father if he could pray while he smoked. The Holy Father replied “But of course! You can always pray.”

“Umberto was a networked man; a man of the web. Umberto saw life like this connection of dots. ― affirmed Riotta ― Any fact becomes important when it is connected to another. It is our job to connect all the different languages and cultures, keep laughing, and keep working.”

My nostalgia and laughter were evoked at the memorial and in the writing this piece: apparently I’m still able to recite from A Theory of Semiotics; vividly recall the limits of interpretation while reading The Name of the Roseand other novels and essays (though I confess to not finishing Queen Loana); and appreciate the invaluable exoteric tool that La Bustina di Minerva during the writing of my dissertation. Ah, the dissertation… in Robarts, the University of Toronto library that Eco loved, is where I spent months conducting research and making photocopies, lost among the stacks that hold over 12 million books in print. In addition to the invited talks and seminars he offered in Toronto, there was also that unforgettable evening of drinks (a very stiff gin martini, of course) at the Yorkville Hyatt’s Roof Lounge, after the Popular Culture: Foundations and Futuresconference in 1996, with a select group of us grad students and faculty.


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