Boyd Tonkin: A Week in Books

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The Independent Culture

Treaties and tantrums aside, most British public figures feel comfortable with the idea of their country as a semi-detached European power. We may tweak the rules, sceptics and supporters both assume, but we never run the game. The cultural marketplace says otherwise. Drop into an Italian bookshop (as I did in Lucca last weekend, on the first chilly day of the Tuscan autumn) and another reality emerges. Ken Follett (see page 23) heads the bestsellers. Joanne Harris's dumpbin dominates the entrance to the store. Although written at a gallop, Robert Harris's The Ghost already greets browsers in its Italian translation. Further back, eclectic imprints such as Roberto Calasso's superb "Adelphi" list offer the Craces, the Coes and the Cusks in amazing profusion and diversity.

Italy may be a somewhat special case, but such a lion's share can be observed right across the continent. From potboilers to pop, football to finance, what's big here will often be just as big there too. It took seconds to find every Jane Austen on the Lucca shelves. How far would you need to roam in Britain to locate the complete works of Manzoni?

One living Italian maestro whom we can read fairly promptly here is Umberto Eco – who, in The Name of the Rose, showed to Ken Follett and other authors that medieval intrigues might entrance modern minds. Since the 1950s, Eco – first as a prolific academic and columnist, then as a chart-topping novelist himself – has crossed borders with an energy and generosity that know no bounds. He straddles the worlds of arcane seminars and op-ed debates, of high theory and page-turning yarns, of national issues and cosmopolitan values. He also thinks and writes as an exemplary European, in an open-minded, open-frontiered style that puts politicians, bureaucrats and most media to shame.

Turning Back the Clock (translated by Alastair McEwen; Harvill Secker, £17.99) is the latest collection of his lively and engaging articles, mostly published after 2001. I agree with almost everything that Eco writes in his sharp-edged but level-headed journalism – up to the point where he bafflingly describes The Da Vinci Code as "written particularly well". Perhaps that was a semiotic joke.

The Code ranks as a classic Eco subject, not least because in Foucault's Pendulum he wittily parodied Dan Brown's paranoiac piffle, 15 years before the wretched tome came out. Brown, he thinks, feeds our hunger "for mysteries (and plots)". His contagious occult tosh marks, for Eco, one more sign of a reversion to the passions and polemics of the past.

From fundamentalist fury to conspiracy theory to neo-imperialist war, Eco spots "authentic backward steps" at every turn – even if, to me, some of his targets look more "retro" than genuinely reactionary. He opposes them with the battered but irreplaceable tools of the Enlightenment, to which he still, though sceptically, "signs up". Shunning confrontation, he praises the art of negotiation as a bedrock for cultural "goodwill and respect".

"If you are not stupid or chronically absent-minded," Eco argues, "you learn more as you grow". One thing that this genial arch-European teaches me is that "British" common sense flows straight from this shared fountainhead of the Enlightenment. And no one in Europe does common sense better than Eco. While those hot-blooded British intellectuals – the Amises, the Eagletons, the Dawkinses – lose their cool, this candid but courteous Italian proves that you can address the most divisive topics of the day and still keep a civil tongue. If Italians can imbibe the craft of the blockbuster from the Folletts and Harrises, then hysterical Brits could learn good sense – and good manners – from the polymathic master of Milan.