10 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Kathryn Longenbach on Umberto Eco’s Inventing the Enemy, which is translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon and is available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kathryn Longenbach is a rising senior at Hamilton College. She is
pursuing a double major in English and art history. Kathryn spent the
past semester studying in Italy and is now an intern here at Open
Letter. This is Kathryn’s first review for threepercent.

Here’s part of her review:

Umberto Eco introduces Inventing the Enemy as a compilation of “occasional writings” (xi); indeed, the essays in this collection were written intermittently throughout the past decade and expound upon a vast array of subject matters. Several of the essays were originally presented as lectures at various gatherings (ranging from film festivals to scholarly conferences) while others first appeared as articles in an assortment of Italian publications. Certain pieces are actually assemblages of multiple works: “Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess” combines three of Eco’s past lectures and writings. This variety of sources generates the diverse themes of these essays, which range from a study of the various uses (both physical and symbolic) of fire to an inspection of current issues such as censorship and abortion; Eco gives the sense that there is no topic too provocative or too trivial.

Inventing the Enemy acquires its title from the initial essay in the collection. Here, Eco develops a theme of his earlier novel, The Prague Cemetery, by demonstrating how the existence of an enemy is crucial to a nation’s success—so crucial, in fact, that if an enemy does not exist, a nation must create one. Such a target may well be an outsider, but people can apply the term “enemy” even to an insider who conducts himself differently than those around him (as evidence, Eco cites several examples such as the Church’s persecution of heretics). Eco maintains that this creation of an adversary is unavoidable:

Click here to read the entire review.

10 July 12 | Aleksandra Fazlipour | Comments

Umberto Eco introduces Inventing the Enemy as a compilation of “occasional writings” (xi); indeed, the essays in this collection were written intermittently throughout the past decade and expound upon a vast array of subject matters. Several of the essays were originally presented as lectures at various gatherings (ranging from film festivals to scholarly conferences) while others first appeared as articles in an assortment of Italian publications. Certain pieces are actually assemblages of multiple works: “Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess” combines three of Eco’s past lectures and writings. This variety of sources generates the diverse themes of these essays, which range from a study of the various uses (both physical and symbolic) of fire to an inspection of current issues such as censorship and abortion; Eco gives the sense that there is no topic too provocative or too trivial.

Inventing the Enemy acquires its title from the initial essay in the collection. Here, Eco develops a theme of his earlier novel, The Prague Cemetery, by demonstrating how the existence of an enemy is crucial to a nation’s success—so crucial, in fact, that if an enemy does not exist, a nation must create one. Such a target may well be an outsider, but people can apply the term “enemy” even to an insider who conducts himself differently than those around him (as evidence, Eco cites several examples such as the Church’s persecution of heretics). Eco maintains that this creation of an adversary is unavoidable:

It seems we cannot manage without an enemy. The figure of the enemy cannot be abolished from the processes of civilization. The need is second nature even to a mild man of peace. In his case the image of the enemy is simply shifted from a human object to a natural or social force that in some way threatens us and has to be defeated. (17)

While such discrimination against a person or a belief often amounts to tragedy, Eco maintains the necessity of the enemy through the end of this essay. He asserts that the existence of an enemy creates a sense of community and nationalism that is essential to a country, one of the more provocative claims that Eco makes about society as a whole.

In several of the succeeding essays, Eco moves away from modern society and heads into a more mystifying realm. The piece “Absolute and Relative” explores various philosophies relating to the concepts introduced in the title. While Eco explains theories regarding the absolute and the relative, however, he simultaneously demonstrates how neither term can be exactly comprehended. He explains that, if an absolute exists, “it is neither imaginable nor attainable” (43) and is therefore outside the realm of human understanding. He also maintains that “different people mean different things when they talk about relativism,” (37) suggesting the concept cannot possess a single definition. The reader is left without the satisfaction of solving the mysteries of the absolute and the relative; however, the process of exploring these concepts is entirely fulfilling in its own right.

The subsequent essay, “The Beauty of the Flame,” focuses on a more tangible concept—fire. It is almost immediately clear, however, that to Eco fire is no less mystifying than the absolute and the relative: “As well as a physical phenomenon, [fire] becomes a symbol, and like all symbols is ambiguous, polysemic, evoking different meanings according to the circumstances” (46). Moreover, the “meanings” of fire tend to contradict one another. Fire can help sustain life, but can also destroy it. It can represent the divinity of God and his Kingdom, but also has a prominent place in the depiction of Hell. By demonstrating how fire possesses such vastly conflicting traits, Eco enriches a seemingly comprehensible subject with intriguing mystery.

A later essay in Inventing the Enemy, “No Embryos in Paradise,” moves away from this elusiveness, yet remains particularly provocative. In this piece, Eco examines St. Thomas Aquinas’s theories regarding embryos and their souls (or lack thereof). Eco maintains that he is not taking a stance on any issues such as abortion or stem cells; rather, this essay serves solely to examine Thomas’s beliefs. In short, he maintains that an embryo is not endowed with a rational soul at the moment of conception:

Thomas has a very biological view about the formation of the fetus. God introduces the soul only when the fetus acquires, stage by stage, first a vegetative soul and then a sensitive soul. Only at that point, in a body already formed, is the rational soul created…therefore the embryo only has a sensitive soul. (90)

Eco goes on to explain Thomas’s various defenses of this view. In addition, he addresses how this belief would affect other topics in Christian doctrine, such original sin and resurrection. Thomas’s views, though formulated hundreds of years ago, add to the fascinating pool of opinions regarding the soul of an unborn child that are a significant cause of international debate in the modern world.
While several subsequent essays in Inventing the Enemy also touch on current controversies (“Censorship and Silence” discusses various means of restricting the media while “Thoughts on WikiLeaks” touches on the WikiLeaks scandal), Eco uses various others to explore the world of literature. “Hugo, Hélas!: The Poetics of Excess” discusses the characteristics of Victor Hugo’s writing. Eco surveys the author’s various works, demonstrating how Hugo takes features seen throughout the Romantic movement—“the temptation and fascination of sin” and the “passage from the depths of poverty to the magnificence of the court” (106) among others—and exaggerates everything to create his touted “poetics of excess.” Eco’s essays “Fermented Delights” and “Ulysses: That’s All We Needed…” also focus on literature: the former delves into the works of Piero Camporesi while the latter discusses reviews of James Joyce’s novel Ulysses.

There are several other essays in this collection, each with its own characteristics and merits. The great range in subject matter could put Inventing the Enemy in danger of seeming overly sporadic; however, the pieces complement each other in subtle ways, making them each seem to be part of the larger whole. These occasional writings serve as a window into the singularity of a fascinating mind at work.

15 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

The latest addition to our Reviews Section is a piece by Monica Carter on Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Prague Cemetery, which is translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon and available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Monica is one of our contributing reviewers, is a writer in her own right, and runs Salonica World Lit.

Here’s the opening of her review:

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, is a writer of veritable talent. Eco compels readers by focusing his twisted microscope on our pasts to observe the brutality of human nature in different eras of history. The Prague Cemetery follows the characteristic Eco style with histrionic digressive back-stories that uncover the insidious havoc of fear and power and their effects on society.

The Prague Cemetery takes the Anti-Semitic atmosphere in ninteenth century Europe and guides us through every convoluted, demonic detail of how it spread. Eco catalogs the foundation for the European culture of Anti-Semitism through a motley cast of characters, labyrinthine cloak and dagger religious plots and a morbid touch of black humor. Although this is amusing, it can be trying for the reader. This is because Eco employs three narrators, each with their own special font, to tell a story that at times feel like a game of literary slapstick.

It begins with Simoni Simonini (ahem), an aging master of forgery who wants to tell us a story in hope of himself figuring out where it all went wrong. Soon the reader realizes that Simoni Simonini is also our second narrator, Abbé Dalla Piccola, and these alter egos communicate through Simonini’s diary entries. They live in the same house and when Simonini becomes the Abbé, he dress in a cassock and roams the streets of Paris only to return to their apartment and fall asleep. When he awakes, he has no idea that he has inhabited the personality of the Abbé. Perhaps this reveals a bit too much about my own comedic foundations, but whenever I hear of a man dressing in a cassock, a series of scenes from the early Woody Allen movies oscillates in my mind. The third narrator is in third person and more objective, but nonetheless entertaining.

Click here to read the entire piece.

15 February 12 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Umberto Eco, author of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose, is a writer of veritable talent. Eco compels readers by focusing his twisted microscope on our pasts to observe the brutality of human nature in different eras of history. The Prague Cemetery follows the characteristic Eco style with histrionic digressive back-stories that uncover the insidious havoc of fear and power and their effects on society.

The Prague Cemetery takes the Anti-Semitic atmosphere in ninteenth century Europe and guides us through every convoluted, demonic detail of how it spread. Eco catalogs the foundation for the European culture of Anti-Semitism through a motley cast of characters, labyrinthine cloak and dagger religious plots and a morbid touch of black humor. Although this is amusing, it can be trying for the reader. This is because Eco employs three narrators, each with their own special font, to tell a story that at times feel like a game of literary slapstick.

It begins with Simoni Simonini (ahem), an aging master of forgery who wants to tell us a story in hope of himself figuring out where it all went wrong. Soon the reader realizes that Simoni Simonini is also our second narrator, Abbé Dalla Piccola, and these alter egos communicate through Simonini’s diary entries. They live in the same house and when Simonini becomes the Abbé, he dress in a cassock and roams the streets of Paris only to return to their apartment and fall asleep. When he awakes, he has no idea that he has inhabited the personality of the Abbé. Perhaps this reveals a bit too much about my own comedic foundations, but whenever I hear of a man dressing in a cassock, a series of scenes from the early Woody Allen movies oscillates in my mind. The third narrator is in third person and more objective, but nonetheless entertaining.

As soon as we parse out who is telling the story when, Eco reveals an invented a document, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which appeared in the early 1900’s as the minutes of a secret meeting in the Prague Cemetery to outline how the Jews were going to take over the world. Along with Simonini’s hatred of everyone—Freemasons, Jacobeans, Jesuits—he is fueled by an unabashed paranoia and hatred of Jews. He spends his entire life as the bumbling traitor, loyal to only those who plan to stop the Jews, haphazardly killing people he just did business with to cover up his own mistakes.

Along the way, we are treated to appearances from famous characters in history related to this document including Eugenie Sue, Maurice Joly and Alexander Dumas that add to the legitimacy of the story as well as infusing it with a bit more accessibility.

The difficulty in reading The Prague Cemetery is that there really isn’t any single character for the reader to latch onto for the ride. They are all horrible, which gives testimony to Eco’s gift as a writer—making the unlikable narrators engaging enough for us to not care that they are unlikable, but we don’t spend enough time with any of them to establish a sense of trust with the writer. The reader wants to know who is truly telling the story. In this case, it feels like the narrators are mere decoys for the real character which is the ubiquitous Anti-Semitism.

It’s a novel of conspiracy theories and awful people who do awful things. By showing us the foibles and failings of the Simonini/Abbé, it’s easier to keep reading because Eco let’s us see through the first person points-of-view the insanity of their hatred and the nature of denial, which is manifested through the split personality of Simonini and the Abbé.

The Prague Cemetery is vintage Eco. The problem is, as masterful as it is, it’s not as enjoyable as his former works. Readers will be impressed by his exhaustive research, his imaginative take on structure and the purpose of the novel—to expose Anti-Semitism. But in the end, when it’s all read, you’ll be happy that it’s over, that you have rid yourself of your stay with Simonini and the Abbé. And like exposing a conspiracy of hatred, there’s a sense of relief and right alongside that relief, is the awareness that doesn’t necessarily mean we are the better for it. Eco leaves us with that same feeling and the urge to cleanse ourselves from our own sullied pasts.

20 March 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

As some of you may have noticed, there’s been an overwhelming response to the Umberto Eco/Salman Rushdie event taking place here on May 1st from 6-8pm. In fact, we had over 1,000 people register to attend in the first five days after this was announced—completely selling out the UR Alumni and Advancement auditorium . . .

Since there are still a lot of people interested in attending—especially UR staff, faculty, and students—we’ve made special arrangements to simulcast the event in Hubble Auditorium in Hutchinson Hall.

This too is free and open to the public, and once again, you have to register online (by clicking the banner at the top of this page or clicking here). And I strongly encourage anyone interested in attending in doing this asap. The auditorium seats 500, but based on how fast we sold out the first auditorium, I wouldn’t be surprised if this fills up as well . . .

If you have any questions/concerns please e-mail me at chad.post at rochester dot edu.

3 March 08 | Chad W. Post | Comments

We’ve been planning this for the past few months (basically ever since the NYSCA sponsorted Facing Pages retreat last October), but we’re really pleased to finally be able to publicly announce that on May 1st, Open Letter will be hosting a PEN World Voices event here in Rochester featuring Umberto Eco and Salman Rushdie.

This event—the first official PEN World Voices Festival event to take place outside of New York City—will take place from 6-8pm at the University of Rochester Advancement and Alumni Center, 300 E. River Road.

The event is free and open to the public, but we do have a limited number of seats, so all attendees must register via the link below. Simply click through, fill out the necessary info and print your confirmation page, which you’ll need to bring the night of the event.

I don’t think I really need to explain who Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco are, but if you’re interested, more info about each are available on this press release.

In terms of Rushdie, what I’m most excited about is this new edition of Shame, which is a Rushdie novel I haven’t read, but one that was recommended to me by both Edwin Frank of NYRB and Joanna Scott. Also, his new book— The Enchantress of Florence —will be out in June, was recently excerpted in the New Yorker and discussed at N+1

Umberto Eco—who may well give his reading in Italian, which I think would be really cool—has a very impressive website with information about all his books, interviews, articles about his work, etc. I’m very interested in reading his latest book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism, which Publishers Weekly describes as such: “He delves deeply into such subjects as Mideastern and European politics, myth, prejudice, globalization, The Da Vinci Code, magical thinking, rhetoric, religion, intelligent design and Harry Potter.” An excerpt is available online from Harcourt.

Personally, I’m really excited to be involved in such a great event, with such great authors, and I have to thank Caro Llewellyn from PEN for making this all possible.

3 January 08 | E.J. Van Lanen | Comments

PEN announced the first event of the 2008 PEN World Voices Festival. There isn’t any news about other participants, or events, yet, but we’ll keep you posted.

The Three Musketeers Reunited:
Umberto Eco, Salman Rushdie and Mario Vargas Llosa

When: Friday, May 2
bq. Where: 92nd St. Y: New York City
bq. What time: 7:30 p.m.

PEN is excited to make the first event announcement of the 2008 World Voices Festival. The event will feature three literary heavyweights appearing at the 92nd Street Y for a special repeat performance. On October 10, 1995, London’s Royal Festival Hall hosted a historic night of readings by three of the world’s most distinguished writers: Umberto Eco from Italy, British-Indian Salman Rushdie, and Mario Vargas Llosa of Peru. At dinner afterwards, Eco anointed the trio as The Three Musketeers. Now, twelve years later, the PEN World Voices Festival, in collaboration with the Poetry Center, is proud to present The Three Musketeers together again for one unforgettable evening.

The Three Musketeers Reunited will take place on May 2 at 7:30 p.m. at the 92nd Street Y in New York City.

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