BOOK REVIEW / Just a little something he prepared earlier: How to travel with a salmon & Other Essays - Umberto Eco: Secker & Warburg, pounds 9.99

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The Independent Culture
UMBERTO ECO, as we know, is a very clever man - philosopher, historian, literary critic and author of a first novel which sold hugely without compromising in the slightest his other job descriptions. The Name of the Rose was one of those books accessible on different levels, from the whodunnit which became the film (Sean Connery in sandals) to the medieval arcana meant to be intelligible only to other European intellectuals with beards and spectacles.

This new book is a slim collection of previously unpublished short pieces which, Eco's preface tells us, have been crammed into a desk drawer over the past 30 years. The title is not some clever allegory, but refers to Eco's struggle to travel with a salmon bought in an airport duty-free shop. He puts

it in the mini-bar in his hotel room, stowing the drinks in a cupboard. The staff keep taking the salmon out and restocking the bar. There is trouble with the computer, and the staff, Indians who don't speak enough English to communicate with the professor.

The salmon reminiscence sets the theme for much of the book. There are pieces about the unsuitability of airline food for eating in cramped, bumpy conditions; about getting through customs, travelling on American trains, battling with Italian bureaucracy for a driving licence, dealing with faxes and mobile phones. You will know the sort of thing: the writer's struggles with an insensitive world which will persist, for some inexplicable reason, in doing things all the wrong way, occasioning much wry, head-shaking amusement and just a little exasperation. Thurber was pretty good at it; Punch used to carry very little else.

Eco includes the one about memos set in the future from inter-galactic commanders; the one we've all read before about unnecessary gadgets in the luxury brochure; the one that wonders why the Indians always charge round the waggons instead of coming right on in and attacking; and the one about first drafts of famous passages: 'April is the cruellest month. And March isn't all that great, either'.

It is an unobjectionable type of humour. Even a conventional, solid performer, an Alan Coren or a Paul Jennings, can be very funny doing it. The trouble is - it's difficult to think of a nicer way to say this - Eco isn't funny. I did suppose that something might have been lost in the translation, but my Italian sources assure me that even in northern Italy the name Umberto Eco is not synonymous with ribtickler. It is, I'm afraid, pretty ponderous stuff. Which does not come as an entire surprise, after reading this, in the preface: 'I should add only that not all the pieces here are in the vein of parody. I have included also pure divertissements, with no critical or moralistic intentions. But I feel no need for ideological justification.' Quite so, admirable, I'm sure. But you also have to make us laugh, Umberto.

The good things in the book come when Eco isn't trying to be amusing at all, particularly in the last piece, an affectionate, affecting and wonderfully observed memoir of his home town, Alessandria. The rest should perhaps have been left in that drawer.