His hugely successful thriller, The Name of the Rose, made Umberto Eco the most famous intellectual in the world. Yet little is known about the early years of the man once dubbed the Pavarotti of semiotics. In his new collection of essays, How to Travel with a Salmon, he tracks football, pornography and philosophy along some fanciful byways. But in this extract about Alessandria, his northern hometown, Eco's aim is clear and pure. Here are some scenes from the ordinary childhood of an extraordinary man

Po Valley Epiphanies

In describing a 'flat' city like Alessandria, I believe the monumental approach is mistaken; I prefer to proceed along more subdued lines. I will tell about some epiphanies. The epiphany (I quote Joyce) is like a 'sudden spiritual manifestation . . .' either in 'the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phrase of the mind itself'. A dialogue, a city clock emerging from the evening fog, a whiff of rotting cabbage, something insignificant that suddenly becomes important: these were the epiphanies Joyce recorded in his foggy Dublin. And Alessandria resembles Dublin more than it does Constantinople.

It was a spring morning in 1943. The decision had been made: we were definitely going to abandon the city. Moreover, the splendid plan was to take refuge at Nizza Monferrato, where we would surely avoid the air raids. (A few months later, however, caught in the crossfire between Fascists and partisans, I would learn to jump into ditches to duck the Sten guns' fire.) Now it was early morning, and we were heading for the station, the whole family, in a hired carriage. At the point where Corso Cento Cannoni opens towards the Valfre barracks, the broad space deserted at this early hour, I thought I glimpsed, in the distance, Rossini, my elementary school classmate, and I called him in a loud voice. It was someone else. My father was irritated. He said that, as usual, I never stopped to think, and one doesn't go around shouting 'Verdini' like a lunatic. I corrected him, saying the name was Rossini, and he said that, Verdini or Bianchini, it was all the same. A few months later, when Alessandria was subjected to its first bombing, I learned that Rossini had died beneath the rubble with his mother.

Epiphanies should not be explained, but in the above recollection there are at least three of them. First, I was scolded for having succumbed to excessive enthusiasm. Second, I had thoughtlessly uttered a name. In Alessandria, every year they put on Gelindo, a pastoral Christmas story. The story takes place in Bethlehem, but the shepherds speak and debate in Alessandrian dialect. Only the Roman centurions, St Joseph, and the Magi speak standard Italian (and in so doing seem highly comical). Now Medoro, one of Gelindo's servants, encounters the Magi and imprudently tells them the name of his master. When Gelindo finds out, he flies into a rage and scolds Medoro roundly. You don't tell your own name to just anyone and you don't thoughtlessly call somebody else by name, out in the open, where everyone can hear. An Alessandrian may talk with you for a whole day without once calling you by name, not even when he greets you. You say 'Ciao' or, on separating, 'Arrivederci,' never 'Arrivederci, Giuseppe.'

The third epiphany is more ambiguous. In my memory I can still see that urban space, too broad, like a jacket handed down from father to son, where that little human form stood out, too distant from our carriage: an ambiguous meeting with a friend I was never to see again. In the flat and excessive spaces of Alessandria you become lost. When the city is really deserted, early in the morning, at night, or on the Ferragosto holiday (or even any Sunday at around 1.30pm), the way from one place to another, in this tiny city, is always too long, and all of it is in the open, where anyone in ambush behind a corner, or in a passing carriage, might see you, invade your privacy, shout your name, ruin you forever. Alessandria is more vast than the Sahara, with faded Morgan le Fays crossing it in every direction.

This is why the people talk very little, merely exchanging rapid signals; they lose you (and themselves). This conditions relationships, hatreds as much as loves. Alessandria, as an urban entity, has no gathering points (or perhaps just one, Piazzetta della Lega), but it has dispersion points almost everywhere. For this reason you never know who's there and who isn't.

An excess of space

In the great Alessandrian desert adolescence can be fevered. 1942, I am on my bike, between two and five on a July afternoon. I am looking for something: from the Citadel to the Track, then from the Track to the Gardens, and from the Gardens towards the station. I cut across Piazza Garibaldi, circumnavigate the Penitentiary, and head off again towards the Tanaro, but this time going through the city centre. Nobody to be seen. I have a firm destination, the station magazine stand where I have seen a cheap paperback edition, no longer new, of a story, translated from the French, that looks fascinating. It costs one lira, and I have exactly one lira in my pocket. Shall I buy it or not? All the other shops are closed, or seem to be. My friends are on vacation. Alessandria is only space, sun, a track for my bike with its pocked tyres; the little book at the station is the only hope of narrative, and hence of reality. (Many years later, I would have a kind of intermittence du coeur, a short circuit between memory and present image, landing on a wobbling plane in the centre of Brazil, at Sao Jesus da Lapa. The plane couldn't land because two sleepy dogs were stretched out in the middle of the cement runway, and they wouldn't move. What is the connection? None, This is how epiphanies work.)

But that day, that day of long foreplay between me and the little book, the duel between my desire and the sultry resistance of the Alessandrian space (and who knows if the book wasn't only the screen, the mask of other desires that were already unnerving a body and an imagination that were neither flesh nor fowl?), that long amorous pedalling in the summer void, that circling flight, remain for all their awfulness a memory heartrending in its sweetness and, I would say, in its ethnic pride. This is how we are, like the city. To end the story, if you want me to, I finally made up my mind and bought the little book. As I recall, it was an imitation of the Atlantide of Pierre Benoit, but with an extra dash of Verne. As the sun set, I was shut up in the house, but I had already left Alessandria, I was navigating on the bed of silent seas, I was witnessing other sunsets and other horizons. My father, coming home, remarked that I read too much and said to my mother that I should spend more time outdoors. But, on the contrary, I was curing myself of the excess of space.

Never Exaggerate

I had a shock when, a bit older, I entered the university in Turin. The Turinese are French, or in any case Celts, not Ligurian barbarians like us. My new companions arrived in the halls of Palazzo Campana in the morning, wearing a proper shirt and a proper tie, they smiled at me and approached with hand extended: 'Ciao, how are you?' Nothing like this had ever happened to me before. In Alessandria, when I ran into companions busy holding up a wall, they would look at me through half-closed eyelids and say, with shy cordiality, 'Hey there, stupid]' Ninety kilometres away, and here was a different civilisation. I am still so steeped in it that I persist in considering it superior. In our parts, you don't lie.

When somebody shot at Togliatti (the secretary of the Italian Communist Party) there was great unrest: the Alessandrians do get excited, on occasion. They filled Piazza della Liberta, the former Piazza Rattazzi. But then the radio was heard from the loudspeakers, spreading the news of Gino Bartali's victory in the Tour de France. This superb mass-media operation, we learnt afterwards, worked throughout Italy. In Alessandria it didn't work quite well enough: we are too smart, you can't make us forget about Togliatti by broadcasting news of a bicycle race. But then, suddenly, an airplane appeared over city hall. This may have been the first time a plane flew over Alessandria with an advertising banner (I don't remember what it was advertising); this was no diabolical stratagem: it was chance. The Alessandrian distrusts diabolical stratagems, but he is very indulgent towards chance. The crowd watched the plane: here's something a bit unusual, why, what will they think up next, they come up with a new one every minute. With detachment everyone expressed his opinion, his personal, profound conviction that, in any, case, the matter would have no influence on the general curve of entropy or the heat death of the universe - these aren't their exact words, but this idea is always implicit in every word spoken in our Alessandrian dialect. Then everybody went home because the day had no more surprises in store. Togliatti would have to fend for himself.

Understanding Fog

Alessandria is made up of great spaces. It is empty. And sleepy. But all of a sudden, on certain evenings in autumn or winter, when the city is submerged in fog, the voids vanish, and from the milky greyness, in the beams of headlights, corners, edges, unexpected facades, dark perspectives emerge from nothingness, in a new play of nuanced forms, and Alessandria becomes 'beautiful'. A city made to be seen in half-light, as you grope along, sticking to the walls. You must look for its identity not in sunshine but in haze. In the fog you walk slowly, you have to know the way if you don't want to get lost; but you always, somehow, arrive somewhere.

Fog is good and loyally rewards those who know it and love it. Walking in fog is better than walking in snow, trampling it down with hobnailed boots, because the fog comforts you not only from below but also from above, you don't soil it, you don't destroy it, it enfolds you affectionately and resumes its form after you have passed. It fills your lungs like a good tobacco; it has a strong and healthy aroma; it strokes your cheeks and slips between your lapels and your chin, tickling your neck, it allows you to glimpse from the distance ghosts that dissolve as you move closer, or it lets you suddenly discern in front of you forms, perhaps real, that dodge you and disappear into the emptiness. (Unfortunately, what you really need is a permanent war, with a blackout; it is only in such times that the fog is at its best, but you can't always have everything.) In the fog you are sheltered against the outside world, face to face with your inner self. Nebulat ergo cogito.

Abridged extract from 'How to Travel with A Salmon & Other Essays' by Umberto Eco, published by Secker & Warburg on 31 August, pounds 9.99 hardback. 1994 Gruppo Editoriale Fabbri, Bompiani, Sonzogno, Etas SpA English translation 1994 by Harcourt, Brace & Company.