2016 has been a bad year for our heroes. Growing up, the people who inspire us tend to be a generation or two older and so inevitably a point is reached when they start passing away in greater numbers. The precarious nature of existence means some are long gone (Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley), others are still going strong (Eddie Vedder) but deaths are starting to bunch. Today both Harper Lee and Umberto Eco, giants in literature, passed away. Eco’s death, in particular, hit me hard and beyond 140-character tributes on Twitter I feel the need to set down here what Eco meant to me over the years, both the man and his work.
Unlike many, The Name of the Rose wasn’t my doorway to the playful, inventive and stimulating world of Eco’s fiction, rather it was Foucault’s Pendulum. It was my father who first read The Name of the Rose, presumably after seeing the Sean Connery film, maybe not, I’ll have to check, and then moved onto his second novel, translated into English in 1989. My father and I regularly swap books we think the other would like (my mother and I also do this, but Eco was me and Dad) and our shared taste was for the philosophical (we ended up studying philosophy at the University of Aberdeen at the same time, but that’s a story for another day). Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was a firm favourite, regularly referenced and re-read on camping trips. Its follow up, Lila, (which is a better book but a worse novel) also fit the bill. Tibor Fischer’s The Thought Gang, Sartre’s The Roads to Freedom trilogy (just the sight of the Penguin edition with the Guernica cover drops me down a rabbit hole of nostalgia), these were the books over which we bonded during a difficult adolescence following my parents’ divorce. Eco slotted onto our shelves so perfectly that his existence could almost be an argument for Intelligent Design by a Psychiatrist Deity.
Shortly before my twenty-fifth birthday I moved to Japan. On the flight out I met Francis, who would go on to become one of my closest friends. Initially however I was living alone in Inuyama, a commuter town north of Nagoya. In those situations you make friends quickly. ‘You speak English? Friend!’ ‘You like music with guitars in it? Friend!’ ‘You like beer? Friend!’ ‘You’ve heard of Scotland? Friend!’ Francis was in Nagoya, where most of the immigrants in the area live, we stayed in touch and I would regularly go into the big bad city for nights and days of drunkenness. Francis lived in the same building as Thom. I’m not sure exactly when we were introduced but I remember when the friendship fell into place like a perfect Tetris move. Francis and Thom came up to Inuyama with some others for the Inuyama festival in the August of that first year in Japan. It’s a big fireworks display along the Kiso river below Inuyama Castle, with food stalls and, as is customary, much drinking. I’m hazy about the order of events but these things happened: 1: Thom had a hat and I stole it. I love hats. Adore them. I’d wear a hat all day every day and a Scrooge nightcap for bed but I’m a big guy with a Dara O’Briain sized head and hats accentuate that, so I don’t wear them. My wife is particularly insistent on this point.
2: Thom had a book of poetry with him (a strong start on the checklist of things I look for in a friend) and at some point I was to be found on the bridge declaiming Tam O’Shanter at the top of my voice as a couple of thousand Japanese people in yukata (summer kimono) passed by.
3: We stayed at the river long after everyone else went home. We got a flag (advertising the local newspaper, but proper flag shaped) on a bamboo pole from somewhere and recreated the Iwojima flag planting scene on the bridge. Not my finest hour in terms of cultural sensitivity but a bloody good laugh and here’s a photo to prove it.
4: At some point Thom and I got talking about Umberto Eco. He had The Island of the Day Before which I had never read. A few days later we met again and he lent it to me. From that moment our friendship was assured. When I think of Umberto Eco, my thoughts immediately turn to Thom, who I see far, far less than I would like.
I’ve written elsewhere about my concerns over the kind of self-censorship growing amongst writers (and artists in general) because of social media. I think political correctness is a wonderful thing and have a deep loathing of anyone who uses the phrase ‘political correctness gone mad’. However political correctness and self-censorship aren’t the same thing. PC = Respect. Literally. If you replace ‘political correctness’ with ‘respect’ you see what happens but the fear of offending is scaring writers away from certain subjects. It almost stopped me from writing The Waves Burn Bright. I was so scared of offending a survivor of the Piper Alpha disaster, or the family of someone who died, that I initially refused to even consider writing the book. But then I realised that I was making two mistakes: Firstly, I was accepting the argument that because it’s conceivable that someone could take offence at what you say, you should shut up (which is basically what no-platforming and trolling amounts to) and I was forgetting that I would be starting from a place of deep, deep respect. If you have respect and sensitivity, if you do your research and tread carefully, then there should be no subject that is beyond raising. Secondly, and while this may seem tangential, stay with me, I was making the classic artist’s mistake. I was assuming that my audience are stupid. We’re all familiar with the idea that TV executives think we’re dumb, that Hollywood producers think we’re dumb, that the music industry thinks we’re dumb (disagree? Simon Cowell’s entire career is predicated on one and three). It’s a thread that runs through all art. Ever heard the word ‘accessible’ used to describe an exhibition, an opera or a poetry collection? Yeah, it means ‘dumbed down’. The rest of the phrase is ‘accessible to all but the most dedicated moron’. I was making the ‘my readers won’t know what I mean’ error which when combined with ‘if offence is possible, stay silent’ equals ‘danger, Will Robinson, danger.’
Then (and here’s where we finally reach a point) I read The Prague Cemetery. If the commentators are right, if social media is right, if the no platformers are right and the political correctness gone mad lot are right, this is a book that shouldn’t exist. The opening chapter is, quite simply, the single bravest act of literature in recent publishing history. To make your main character (not hero, a thousand times not hero, and to the teacher at my school who thought ‘protagonist’ and ‘hero’ were synonyms, no) a bitter, twisted anti-semite; to include in your opening chapter a tour of world stereotypes, xenophobic excuses and racist conspiracy theories; to give your readers that kind of trust, to say to them ‘look, I know this is hateful nonsense, and I know that you know this is hateful nonsense, and we’re all smart enough to know that just writing something down doesn’t make it true, that by naming an idea you don’t empower it with supernatural strength, and I trust you to detect the scent of satire permeating this without me having to waft it around, so go with me, dear reader, go with me and let’s see where these ideas lead.’ That, THAT, is what literature is, what it does. Swift, Voltaire, Eco. The great satirists, the great thinkers who took their insights, their ideas, their genius and education, and seasoned it with a sense of humour and an understanding that their readers were capable of joining them on their lofty ridges and produced works of fiction that are as entertaining as they are enlightening.
You think this is hyperbole? As I write this the death of an 84-year-old semiotician is trending on Twitter. You think people want entertainment at the expense of ideas, that people want escapism over engagement? As I write this the death of an 84-year-old semiotician is trending on Twitter. You think there is no market for literature in translation? As I write this the death of an 84-year-old Italian semiotician is trending on Twitter.
Umberto Eco brought me closer to my father, he introduced me to one of my best friends, and he helped me come nearer an understanding of what it is to be a writer. His death is an enormous loss to humanity. His death is an enormous loss to me. I never met him. I wish I had. I’d have bought him whatever he wanted to drink and listened to him talk. Now I never will.