BOOK REVIEW / War games with Sitting Bull: Misreadings - Umberto Eco Tr. William Weaver: Cape, pounds 9.99

Sue Gaisford
Friday 25 June 1993 23:02

WHAT MUST it have been like to be the first man to make a chisel from a flint? Perhaps it was not such a leap into the unknown as being the first person to discover the edible bits in an artichoke, or to test-drive a parachute, but it was probably a great moment all the same. Umberto Eco pondered the subject in 1961 and produced a short story called The Thing. Ka the caveman is the imagined inventor. He shows his weapon to the General, who immediately plans its mass production, realising its potential for defeating a rival tribe. At this, Ka panics, seeing his chisel as having in it the seeds of the destruction of mankind. His scruples are dismissed as the ravings of a bleeding heart liberal; he is killed by his own invention and mechanical warfare is born.

The story is one of the contributions Eco made to a long-dead Italian periodical called Il Verri. Three decades later 15 of them are reproduced in this book. Written years before Eco became famous for The Name Of The Rose (among other things), these little essays are the whimsical meanderings of a great mind that has not yet quite developed its potential. Mostly, they are parodies, written to add humour to what must have been a solemn publication. They read like somebody trying to be Miles Kington, but this kind of thing depends on seeming easy. For Eco, it often looks very hard indeed.

Calling himself Umberto Umberto (which in English is Humbert Humbert, Lolita's seducer) Eco launches into a fantasy he calls Granita. A youth whose desires centre on old women manages to lure a grandmother on to the handlebars of his bicycle and carry her off. He raves, rather horribly, about 'faces furrowed by volcanic wrinkles' and 'proudly gnarled hands', but he meets his Waterloo when she is whisked into a health farm and emerges with coppery blonde hair and a smooth skin. Ho, ho.

A more pleasing fantasy is The Latest From Heaven. In this one, a jaded reporter grumbles about the fact that 'He' is rather out of date. The whole celestial kingdom is an unwieldy bureaucracy run by the Higher Echelons: there is an entire department for the Elimination of the Albigenses. Nobody can any longer imagine what goes on there, but they still have their own letterhead and special benefits. An obsolete rule decrees that you can still get in automatically if you have killed 10 Muslims because nobody has got round to repealing it. But the Old Man did get very worked up about the subversive theory of the statistics of Chance: he wrote a personal memo to the joint seven heavens about it. The reporter ends by giving the whole set-up no more than 10,000 years, 'then you'll see'.

Of the rest, only two others seem really worth bothering with. One is a touching and serious letter to Eco's new-born son, in which he promises to give the child as presents guns, cutlasses and damascened pistols and to play war games with him in which they will side with the Gauls against Caesar, with Sitting Bull against Custer and with Robespierre against the Scarlet Pimpernel. That way, the boy will learn that truth is never all on one side, and he will also work off all his innate anger and repression. It was that same native anger that he imagines Eichmann, as a little boy, cherishing, when he lay 'on his stomach, with that death's bookkeeper expression on his face', playing with his peaceful and constructive Meccano.

The other is a cheerfully satiric piece about what might happen after the world has been destroyed and virtually the only literary fragments to survive are snippets of popular songs. Sending up the whole practice of literary exegesis, these songs are subjected to intensive deconstruction. Singing in the Rain is seen as a propitiatory or fertility hymn to nature, but the finest relic is a song that is clearly 'as direct as a psalm': foreseeing the new ice age and directed at the children of the progressive and prosperous arctic, it is a message of faith and solidarity. It is only a fragment, but profoundly meaningful: 'Button up your overcoat when you're on a spree. Take good care of yourself . . .'

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