Book review: The Book of Legendary lands, By Umberto Eco

A polymath's keen rumination on utopias – with a generous helping of piffle

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The Independent Culture

Over the past few years, the big brain from Bologna has applied his legendary polymathy to the production of an annual scrapbook, with texts and pictures often impressively recondite in origin. After the fascinating allure of his three previous anthologies – On Beauty, On Ugliness and The Infinity of Lists – The Book of Legendary Lands is a bit of an oddity.

As Eco admits, the theme has already been tackled "in the excellent Dictionary of Imaginary Places by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi". To get round this slight problem, he declares a limitation (not assiduously followed) on "lands and places that… have created chimeras, utopias and illusions because a lot of people thought they really existed."

In tackling Atlantis, El Dorado, Ultima Thule, the Land of Cockaigne and other fantastic topographies, Eco inevitably presents readers with sizeable servings of piffle. He describes an ardent 19th century believer in Atlantis as a "man of imperturbable credulity". Similarly, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail is "a pile of nonsense". The same, incidentally, might apply to a ponderous satire on the numerology of pyramids that occupies four pages. The author: Umberto Eco.

In a chapter on the "Interior of the Earth", Eco cites a polar diary attributed to the American explorer Admiral Richard E Byrd, which apparently has "unleashed an extraordinary number of books, articles and websites… by hollow-earth devotees." Despite Eco's view that "the most prudent conclusion is that the diary is a fake", we're given a generous chunk of this confection set in "a large shimmering city pulsating with rainbow hues of colour".

Edward Bulwer-Lytton's Vril or The Power of the Coming Race (1871), a fantasy about an underworld civilisation, attracted an equally nutty, though far more disturbing following. "It was the face of man… but yet a type of man distinct from our known extant races, so regular in its calm, intellectual, mysterious beauty." Eco notes that the book "influenced German occultist circles and inspired, a decade before the advent of Nazism, the Vril Society… Believers waited for the Coming Race of extraordinary power and beauty." Perhaps because a certain beefy beverage has not taken root in Italy, Eco does not mention a more benign association. The novel's name was appropriated for the second syllable of Bovril.

It is fortunate that Eco ignores his own interdict on fiction or we would have missed such glorious twaddle as The Mystery of the Black Jungle by Emilio Salgari (1895), in which an explorer comes across "a young woman of incredible beauty… perhaps 14 years old" in a jungle temple. He is instantly besotted. "'I'm yours to command… Swear to me you'll be my bride…I still don't know your name." "Ada Corishant." "Ada Corishant! What a beautiful name!" Amid such trash, the inclusions from Borges, maestro of the modern fable, shine like gems.

It is quite likely, however, that most purchasers of Eco's compendium will get no further than the dazzling illustrations. A chapter on the medieval belief in the flat earth includes a view of the earth from 11th century Paris that is as stylised as the London Tube Map. "Insula Brittannia" is a long green sausage.

Later portrayals of legendary lands concentrated on the sexual possibilities of these blissful abodes. An anonymous 15th-century vision of "il giardino dell'amore" charmingly portrays naked hanky-panky in a fountain. A fleshy rendering by the 19th-century academician Bouguereau of Nymphs with Satyr centres on the unambiguous fondling of the latter's horn. The book's cover features the scorching enfilade of meaningful glances in Mantegna's Parnasus (1497). Prolonged scrutiny of such seductive utopias would turn anyone into a believer.