Travels in Hyperreality, How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays, and On Literature by Umberto Eco

15 January 2008

For today, here’s a handful of short reviews — three collections of essays and other short pieces by Umberto Eco, Italian professor of semiotics and author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum.

Travels in Hyperreality by Umberto Eco (1990)

The essays and pieces in Travels in Hyperreality often focus on Eco’s chosen field of semiotics, the study of signs and the ways in which meanings are made and understood through the use of signs and symbols. The ‘hyperreality’ that Eco refers to in the title essay is not exactly easy to explain, but in a way it can best be described by the figures in a wax museum: everything is made to be as life-like and realistic as possible, but done so in a way that the human eye and human brain cannot truly accept those wax figures as anything but fake. The long title essay looks at the hyperreality of wax museums, ‘Old West’ tourist towns, and Disneyland — in short, of many tourist attractions in America — with an intriguing academic detachment borne of many years of looking at how we as human beings define our reality.

The essays of Travels in Hyperreality were mostly written in the 1960s and 1970s, and they’re definitely dated by the examples he uses and the references he makes. Eco wonders in one essay what kind of reaction would result from an attack on a major sports field in the middle of a football game — it’s clear that the essay was written several years before the murder of the Israeli atheletes in the 1972 Munich Olympics. Readers who have little patience for Marxist interpretations of society might find certain essays problematic in that regard. But Travels in Hyperreality is for the most part just that: a collection of travels and accompanying observations about reality and about the aspects of life, both good and bad, that seem to be a little too real for comfort at times.

How to Travel with a Salmon and Other Essays by Umberto Eco (1994)

This book is a selection of various humourous essays and short story fragments written by Eco over the years, collected here in book form. The title essay opens the book, and in it Eco relates an odd tale of his attempts to keep a piece of fresh salmon in the mini-bar refrigerator of his London hotel room during a short stay in the city. (Not only was the attempt unsuccessful, but he also ended up with a staggering bill for all of the alcohol and beverages and nibbles he had to remove from the refrigerator in order to stuff the salmon into it each day — and he gained a bit of reputation amongst the hotel staff for extreme overindulging.) Most of the other essays are similar in tone, filled with wry observations on travel, modern technology, the weirdness of other human beings, and the busyness of everyday life in general. With subjects ranging from ‘How to Replace a Driver’s License’ (in Italy, apparently, this is almost an impossible feat) to ‘How to Buy Gadgets’ (a must-read for anyone who has boggled over a Sharper Image catalogue or one of those magazines found in the seat-pockets on airplanes), plus a few articles that are wicked parodies of nonsensical academic jargon and bureaucratese, there’s enough variety in the book to ensure that no one theme is repeated to the point of wearing out.

How to Travel with a Salmon is, I think, a very good short introduction to Eco’s brisk and clever writing style and his sense of sly and subtle humour. It definitely made me laugh out loud in places, and I spent much of the rest of the book trying and failing to keep a straight face. It’s also a very good travel book, since the essays are short enough to be read in little chunks and funny enough to be a welcome distraction from whatever craziness happens to be plaguing your immediate surroundings.

On Literature by Umberto Eco (2005)

Another collection of writings by Eco, all of a more literary and/or scholarly bent. Most of them were given as talks or written as papers for conferences, and the array of subject matter is extremely broad and…I think ‘erudite’ is probably the best word for it. There are essays about the literary style of Marx’s Communist Manifesto, observations on the use of style and symbolism in different authors’ works, an interesting essay which attempts to evaluate ideas of ‘highbrow’ and ‘lowbrow’ literature, and a rather critical one about the wit of Oscar Wilde (he doesn’t dislike Wilde’s aphorisms per se, but considers them more shallow and superficial than most people tend to think). More than a few of the essays, I freely admit, go over my head — primarily because in them Eco is discussing or making references to books I have not actually read or even heard of before. But they do pique my interest in the books he happens to be talking about, so perhaps one of these days I will come back to my copy of On Literature and find that something he’s written makes more sense to me at that point then it does right now.

One of the most interesting essays in this collection — my favourite, in fact — explains how he writes, or how he worked to develop the ideas for the works that he’s best known for writing (The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum in particular). The amount of time and effort Eco puts into his work really shows when he explains how he crafts his stories. One point in particular worth mentioning is how he tends to write dialogue in relation to time — if two people were walking down a corridor having a conversation, he says, and the conversation had to finish before they reached the end of the corridor, then he (as author) would have to figure out the length of the corridor so that he could time the length of the conversation in his head and adjust his characters’ walking speed accordingly. It’s this kind of detail that really make his work stand out. Speaking as someone who enjoys finding out what makes authors tick, it’s a pleasure to see in this collection of essays that Eco is also very much interested in learning about authors and the things that make them tick.


One comment

  1. Eco is a guy who should have one of those giant,domed heads, like those 50’s science fiction movies, to accommodate his over-sized brain. Fiction, essays, criticism, philosophy…people like Eco make me feel inadequate, like I should have rug burns on my knuckles from dragging them as I walk about in my living room…

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