Thursday, June 15, 2017

Ranking the Umberto Eco novels

Because I'm a bit of a ponce, I've always found challenging art to be the most satisfying. The more unreasonably complicated and stressful the novel, the more memorable the reading experience.

When I bother to put in the time and effort, there's a high chance I'll be rewarded with a favourite book of the year. Like happened in 2016* and 2015. 2014's was a comic with no words, because you have to sabotage your own arguments sometimes. The two years before that were both Umberto Ecos.

You'd think that guarantee of satisfaction would be motivation enough to read the remaining five-sevenths of his fiction library, but I've only managed another one and a half in the years since. It's a lot of effort, isn't it?

So it's time to stop lazily reading a couple of thousand pages' worth of short stories a month and knuckle down to some grown-up reading. Here are The Top 7 Umberto Eco Novels, with their original Italian covers to make me look smarter than I am. I didn't read them in Italian, obviously.

Indispensable key:

The Name of the Rose (1980)
Foucault's Pendulum (1988)
The Island of the Day Before (1994)
Baudolino (2000)
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004)
The Prague Cemetery (2010)
Numero Zero (2015)

7. Numero Zero (2015)

Eco's shortest and most straightforward novel was inevitably going to receive backlash on those unforgivable grounds alone, and it seems to largely come from people who adore Foucault's Pendulum. Since that dense book mainly annoyed me, I was actually looking forward to the prospect of its antithesis.

On the plus side, it spent significantly less time boring me. But by forsaking the rich historical backdrops of most of his novels for the grimy urban 1990s, it couldn't even coast along on atmosphere like a lot of his more perplexing passages do.

I had to read up briefly on the Italian scandals of the period, because this litigious satire/speculation necessarily lacks Eco's usual detailed exposition. He can't just come out and say it's about Berlusconi. The 84-year-old author died just over a year after this was published. "Pancreatic cancer": yeah, right.

6. Foucault's Pendulum (1988)

This was the main motivation for putting myself through the chore of reading one of my favourite authors, because I had to finish it some time.

It was tied with Illuminatus! as one of two books I'd had a decent crack at, twice, but still never managed to get even half-way through. And both are paranoid conspiracy piss-takes that are technically right up my street. On paper, at least. But what about on paper?

If this is the thinking man's Da Vinci Code, I guess that makes me an idiot. It starts getting somewhere when they finally start crafting the fictional conspiracy and the fiction starts to consume their lives, but it takes forever to get there, and the path is strewn with time-wasting tangents. I was annoyed that I'd got over half-way through before I found out there's an abridged audiobook read by Tim Curry.

It doesn't help that the setting is the unglamorous world of indie publishing. At least set it hundreds of years ago in an exotic location.

5. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004)

My #149 book of 2015. I didn't need to read it again. Here's what I reckoned at the time:

If you were hoping for something less wordy that didn't consist almost entirely of an amnesiac book dealer's confused monologue, you should really have looked for a different author. Admittedly, it's my least favourite of the three-and-a-half Umberto Ecos I've read [amateur!], but I feel the book is fine with that, since it mainly serves as a love letter to literature in general. If you ever find a novel denser with quotes and references than this one, check again because you're probably reading an encyclopaedia.

4. Baudolino (2000)

This fanciful account of crusades, exploration and fantastic adventure would be an incredible historical document, if only it were real. Though that still wouldn't make it any more credible than it is as a 21st-century work of fiction.

To call Baudolino an unreliable narrator is putting it lightly. He mentions hanging out with unicorns as early as page seven, and it doesn't take too long for basilisks, face-chested people and skiapods to show up on his tour of exotic/pretend Asia. I assume the cover was painted from life.

He might well be one of the most annoying characters in literature, claiming credit for every significant event of the period and bragging about his pan-lingual ability even as we see, in an extract from his juvenile memoirs, that he's barely literate.

Written in broken dialect with uncouth punctuation, that's the most frustrating part of the novel for sure, so it's pleasing that Eco put it right at the beginning to keep the casual readers away. It would have been even more entertaining/infuriating if he'd gone for broke and written the whole thing like that. The translator might have had a heart attack.

3. The Island of the Day Before (1994)

From its (slightly) thinner spine, you might judge that Eco wasn't so serious about his third novel. It's more appealing already.

It's not fuelled by frustration like the previous one seemed to be. He's not trying to break a literary genre that's ticking him off this time. It feels more like he's been poring over old maps and immersing himself in the Age of Discovery for the scholarly day job, and now he wants to have a bit of fun in that world. This is all fine with me.

I fancied reading something from that period anyway, and while this fake relic is less insightful than a real one would be, it's obviously more readable. Even warped through the prism of a self-important editor, it's a tender tribute to a time of fanciful lies, scientific magic, courtly courting and self-destructive valour.

2. The Prague Cemetery (2010)

My #1 book of 2013 (probably). As with most historical novels (alright, all of them), I know so little about late 19th century Italy that I'm happy to trust the authenticity of the events and cameos that Eco's bound together in his fictitious web.

It's an ingenious forgery about one of the most famous and poisonous forgeries of all time. It riffs on similar themes of contagious conspiracies and shadowy doppelgängers to his earlier books, but there are two main things that make it stand apart:

i). We're trapped in the diseased mind of a truly twisted individual as he drags us ever further down the spiral of madness.

ii). The compulsively detailed accounts of what Simonini's eating make for a uniquely mouth-watering read.

I expect some mental health experts would take issue with the author over his protagonist('s/s'(?)) peculiar condition. Does he have to be an expert on everything?

1. The Name of the Rose (1980)

My #1 book of 2012 and somewhere up there on the epic all-time ranking. Eco was never going to top his debut novel, and enchanted readers can't help but feel similar disappointment that it's all going to be downhill from here. To improve would simply be unreasonable.

This smart-arse monastic murder mystery is rightly adored by bookworms, but you don't need to be well-versed in the classics to see the tributes all over the place. (Here's a starter for free: they're Holmes and Watson. I didn't encounter Borges until later).

But it doesn't just have cleverness going for it. He also had to put it in a vivid, atmospheric setting, didn't he? I read it during a month in Sri Lanka, and was so engrossed in the fruitless quest for meaning that my real memories of the place are mixed up with mouldy manuscripts, secret chambers and giant lion statues. Oh hang on, that one was real.

* A while after writing this intro, I remembered my favourite book of 2016 was also a comic, not The Waves as I'd thought. It was a bit of a complex comic, to be fair. Well, I'm not going to rewrite that bit and sabotage my patently half-untrue argument earlier than I did already.

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