Umberto Eco

Reading Umberto Eco: fun but curiously empty in the end

Ptilinopus victor

Eco is entertaining – all his novels sport very witty laughs.  He’s also literarily talented – all his novels contain successful, consciously written passages of formally beautiful prose (e.g. Belbo playing his trumpet).  And he is delightfully eloquent – very Baroque indeed (which is great if you happen to be into the baroque).

Yet, Eco fails — he fails first and foremost as a story-smith.  His plots, consciously modernist/ weirdly abstract, a la Peter Greenaway though they be (a made up secret society plot turns out to be a fact; a hero believes his daydreams enough to swim to his death in the belief that he is swimming towards its happy-end conclusion, etc.), yet somehow fail to deliver on their promise in the end:  closing the book, one is left scratching his head – what was the point now?  Perhaps Eco unnecessarily insists on bringing his plots to conclusion, instead of leaving them hanging open-ended as another might.

His novels fail in another way, too:  though it is easy to find some of Eco’s characters very engaging (Old de la Griva, Saint-Soveign, Ampama, Aglie), his central characters – those of whom we end up learning the most (Young de la Griva, Belbo, Baudolino) are…  dull, strangely colorless and unattractive.  They strike me the way many scholars I know do:  immensely well read and literary, witty and yet curiously uninteresting — lacking in fantasy, imagination, sparkle; as if they were but a bundle of tissues and learning — without a person inside.  I imagine Eco’s characters to be very much like Eco himself – their lack of…  brio seem rather very in much in keeping with the kind of person happiest spending endless hours desk-bound, filling page after page after page with words.

Enjoyable as they are, Eco’s books invariably leave me dissatisfied in the end:  the plot ends with a disappointment, the central character I have been reading about – not worth the effort after all.  Lots of good verbal fun, yes – but, somehow, in the end, to no purpose.

Quite a lot like the orange dove, in fact.

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