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BOOK REVIEW : Irreverent Parodies From Umberto Eco : MISREADINGS, by Umberto Eco ; translated by William Weaver , Harcourt Brace Jovanovich,A Helen and Kurt Wolff Book $12.95, 176 pages

June 01, 1993|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Umberto Eco has been a well-known literary figure since "The Name of the Rose" hit the U.S. bestseller lists in 1983, but in certain circles he had been prominent since the mid-1970s, when he published "A Theory of Semiotics."

"Misreadings," Eco's most recent volume, has much more in common with the semiotics book than the novel, for the essays collected here were written between 1959 and 1972, when Eco was an irreverent young scholar working his way toward a professorship at the University of Bologna.

These essays are hardly the sort of thing one finds in academic journals, however: they are parodies, all first published in a column Eco wrote for a self-consciously avant-garde literary magazine, Il Verri .

The burlesques vary in quality, and some will prove nearly opaque to those without Eco's cultural and intellectual background. But even the least effective essays display Eco's ability to turn accepted perspectives on their heads--and sometimes the most basic assumptions under which we lead our lives.

For the English edition, Eco has given this collection a new title--the Italian translates literally as "Minimal Diary," after Eco's column--and it's hard to imagine a better one.

A major theme of the book is that every reading is not only, to some degree or other, a misreading, but that misreadings can be both more interesting and more plausible than supposed "correct" readings. The most amusing pieces are satires on modern Western anthropology and ethnography.

In 1962's "Industry and Sexual Repression in a Po Valley Society," Eco places a Melanesian islander in Milan, where he comes to believe that Westerners should not be dismissed as "primitive" because "they practice machine worship and are still far from any direct contact with nature." He likewise finds that the city's allegiance is divided between Industry and the Church--Industry being "a spiritual power, bent on winning souls," and the Church "intent on earthly rule, on acquiring more and more property."

In "Fragments," from 1959, an archeologist from the distant future attempts to reconstruct Italian poetry from the 1970s, when an enormous explosion wiped out all European life. His evidence for declaring that the era's verse "was a poetry of crisis, boldly aware of the world's impending fate," is one of its few remaining relics--a book entitled "Great Hit Songs of Yesterday and Today," from which he quotes the only legible line in "what must have been an ode condemning terrestrial concerns": "It's a material world."

Madonna (born in 1958) was in diapers, of course, when Eco first published this essay--it's been updated and Anglicized for this edition--and didn't record the cited song until the 1980s. Such inconsistencies mean nothing to Eco, however, and indeed are part of his stock in trade here, for they allow him to demonstrate that facts are infinitely malleable according to the perspective imposed on them by an interpreter.

In "The End Is At Hand," an ancient Greek somehow trained in the Frankfurt School's brand of social criticism ridicules Socrates as "a faithful servant of the culture industry." Columbus' voyage is a televised media event in "The Discovery of America," the explorer saying upon disembarkation, "A small step for a sailor, a giant step for His Catholic Majesty."

In many of these parodies the medium and the message are so deeply intertwined that they must be read twice before Eco's design becomes apparent. Some of the simpler pieces are little more than parlor tricks--"Granita," for example, is a one-note parody of "Lolita" in which Eco hungers for old women he calls "nornettes."

Others are complex sketches in which Eco shows significant insights emerging from profoundly misguided perspectives, shrewd interpretations from seriously distorted information. The Melanesian anthropologist is certainly off base when he claims that Milan's newspaper is intended by "headmen" to keep the people "in a state of uncertainty" and "has no relation to reality" . . . but there's a frightening amount of truth to this misreading of the evidence, too.

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