- Walking and Swimming with Umberto Eco
As hurricane Humberto ominously approached the Caribbean islands and the eastern seaboard of the United States, areas already pounded by Erin and Felix earlier in the summer of 1995, The New Yorker announced, in an anticipatory review, the imminent publication of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, L’isola del giorno prima, translated into English (of course) by William Weaver. 1 Set into motion by a storm and subsequent shipwreck, Eco’s novel seemed almost to time its American debut with the arrival of the hurricane bearing the Italian author’s name. (Fortunately, this storm, unlike its two predecessors, petered out before making landfall.)
In addition to the review published before the appearance of Weaver’s English translation, there appeared not long after the novel arrived in U.S. bookstores an essay by Weaver himself containing selections from his “translator’s journal.” Among the entertaining anecdotes and reflections told by Weaver is his recollection in the very first entry that Um, as he refers to Eco in his journal, had included a set of “instructions for translators” along with the voluminous printout of the novel. Weaver makes surprisingly little of this formalized gesture of authorial intervention in the translation process, remarking only that Eco’s translators were told “not to use words [End Page 164] that came into existence after the 17th century” (16). However, literary critics familiar with Eco’s prodigious cultural output over the past thirty-five years may well wonder if the primary goal of the semiotician and novelist, particularly in his recent writings, has not been to provide a definitive set of “instructions for interpreters.”
In the first part of this essay, therefore, I shall attempt to extrapolate such a set of interpretive guidelines from one of Eco’s latest major theoretical statements, Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Delivered as the 1993 Charles Eliot Norton lectures, these essays were published in 1994, the same year in which L’isola del giorno prima appeared in Italy. Attentive to how literature “works” (as opposed to why and for whom), Eco makes a strong case for what I call a “functional approach” to the act of interpretation. Insofar as Eco’s own fiction functions as, in Maurizio Viano’s formulation, “narrazione teorizzante” or “teoria narrata” (“Ancora su Il pendolo di Foucault” 160), I turn to L’isola del giorno prima in the second part of this essay to examine Eco’s dramatization of the major issues at stake in his scholarly work. 2 I find that reader-oriented interpretive theory and praxis, which Eco presents in Six Walks as a theoretical foil to his functional hermeneutics, figure in the novel as the primary threat to the philosophical, even physical, well-being of Eco’s young protagonist. However, not satisfied merely to show how Eco’s theory and fiction “reflect” one another, I aim throughout this essay to disclose certain limitations to Eco’s own arguments in favor of interpretive limits. 3 Thankful that Eco’s own interpretations, as well as his novels and critical theory, are subject to interpretation, I think it important to consider why certain readers may be less welcome than others to walk and swim in Umberto Eco’s fictional and theoretical universes. 4 [End Page 165]
Walking (or Tripping) through Eco’s Woods
In Six Walks Eco advances his functional approach to literature and criticism by describing the literary text as a “lazy machine” requiring collaboration on the part of the reader (28, 49). He thus identifies and discusses many of the strategies, techniques, models, and mechanisms employed by creative writers to construct this narrative machine. Addressing himself to a broad audience, Eco provides useful and generally clear expositions of such theoretical issues as the story-plot-discourse distinction (32–36), narrative time (54–73), and the model reader and model author (9, 15–16, 24, 115–16). Eco makes ample use of his previous scholarship and fiction in Six Walks—particularly Opera aperta, The Limits of Interpretation, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, and Il pendolo di Foucault—to investigate the “rules” of narrative (for which fiction shares much with games). These rules (a function primarily...