“I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who loves a very cultivated woman and knows that he cannot say to her “I love you madly”, because he knows that she knows (and that she knows he knows) that these words have already been written by Barbara Cartland. Still there is a solution. He can say “As Barbara Cartland would put it, I love you madly”. At this point, having avoided false innocence, having said clearly it is no longer possible to talk innocently, he will nevertheless say what he wanted to say to the woman: that he loves her in an age of lost innocence.”
― Umberto Eco
Throughout this series of AtoZChallenge posts, I have chosen authors who are not just favourites but also those whose complete oeuvre I have read through, as far as possible. Eco is an exception. Of his work I have read only two novels, a few essays, and the celebrated How to write a thesis. Yet he is more of an inspiration than many others, being one of the quintessential writers of pure metafiction, a writer who celebrated the written word throughout his work, a writer for writers.
“We live for books. A sweet mission in this world dominated by disorder and decay.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
I was instantly hooked by The Name of the Rose when I read it a few years ago. It was unlike anything I had ever read before – a murder mystery set in the library of a monastery with layers of philosophy, discussions on theology, celebration of books and libraries, historical descriptions, and above all, the constant allusion that “books always speak of other books, and every story tells a story that has already been told“. It was one of my first conscious introductions to metafiction and turning the pages, I was spellbound. It is a book that I look forward to re-read someday.
“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library … was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds”
Umberto Eco, The Name of The Rose
“…a book is a fragile creature…the librarian protects them not only against mankind but also against nature, and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion, the enemy of truth.”
― Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the story of antiquarian book dealer Yambo who suffers amnesia after a stroke and tries to reconstruct his memory sentence by sentence, page by page, from the books, newspapers, and magazines of his childhood is a bibliophile’s delight. The illustrations of these books in miniature within the pages make it an exceptionally beautiful book, literally and otherwise.
“But the purpose of a story is to teach and to please at once, and what it teaches is how to recognize the snares of the world.”
Reading Eco’s novels is hard work, which nevertheless yields great rewards in terms of comprehending complicated plots, interpreting allusions and the joy of figuring out the many strands of meaning within the narrative. I have all his books on my TBR list, to be picked up at some time in the future when I can spend hours and days focusing on each book, reading for the pure delight of reveling in erudite essays and metafiction.
In contrast to Eco’s novels, How to write a thesis is a solid, lucid, if slightly dated textbook on the purpose and process of choosing a subject, setting the boundaries of research, conducting research, taking notes and presenting the thesis with proper references and bibliography. The narrative of the text with its examples rooted in Italian academia and the occasional dashes of humour transports the reader to Eco’s classroom.
As he was an honorary fellow of my college, I had very much hoped to attend Professor Eco’s actual lecture someday. and was saddened to hear about his passing in Feb 2016. Now I look forward to reading and learning from the rest of his acclaimed body of work.
I rediscovered the joy of television for a while, thanks to a long, lingering spell of viral flu and found myself hooked to two particular serials on YouTube on the weekends.
The first was Upanyas, an old serial that I vaguely remembered from childhood. I was too young to watch it when it was first broadcast on Doordarshan many years ago. Watching it for the first time, I was delighted to find that it had a metafictional premise. A woman vacationing in a hill station meets her favourite novelist who is semi-retired and requests him to resume writing. The episodes then take parallel tracks, one following the author as he proceeds to create his story, and the other depicting the story which mirrors the author’s life and the characters around him. The author’s own story is far more interesting than the world that he writes into being.
Mohan Vatsal is by no means the perfect author or even a perfect man. There are hints of a shady past linked to his multiple divorces, which comes out when his partner attempts suicide. His condescending attitude towards everyone including his reader and artistic arrogance which comes out through his reflections on the world around him make him a very complex character, though one who is self-assured of his powers of creation. When the reader Yashodhara points out that his novel was less of a plotted story and more a group of incidents loosely connected together, he acknowledges that he had been inspired to write it that way.
The character of the Vatsal’s partner Prabhavati is reminiscent of Mohini in Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play Party. Both women fall in love with artists on account of their art and later find themselves unwanted, alone, bereft of their identity, perhaps hinting that relationships between authors and readers are best when they stay on either side of the page. A victim of domestic violence, Prabhavati seeks solace from her troubled marriage in Vatsal’s books and gets into a relationship with him. Short flashbacks reveal her own artistic temperament with flashes of inspiration that are comparable, even superior to Vatsal’s imagination. When he becomes uncomfortable with her creative expressions, she is happy to remain in his shadow, cooking and keeping house for him until he tires of her presence, and she grows frustrated and insecure as their relationship does not have a future. Vatsal admits to himself that Prabhavati’s dependence strengthens him as he feeds off her need for him. After an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Prabhavati makes a dignified exit from Vatsal’s life. In a poignant scene, she tells the writer that she was leaving for a place where all her needs would be met – food, clothing and most importantly, books to read.
A number of literary references and philosophical reflections are woven into the dialogue. To cite just two examples, Vatsal talks about the joys of intertextuality, his admiration of Tolstoy and how he hopes to write a character like Kino from Steinbeck’s The Pearl into one of his novels someday. His character Chalakha writes to her cousin that the ego needs unhappiness to reinforce itself for absolute joy dissolves the sense of the self, which seems to reflect this quote by Greene:
“The sense of unhappiness is so much easier to convey than that of happiness. In misery we seem aware of our own existence, even though it may be in the form of a monstrous egotism: this pain of mine is individual, this nerve that winces belongs to me and to no other. But happiness annihilates us: we lose our identity.”
Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
The serial is set in a period when time was richer: when people took pleasure in unhurried walks, wrote long letters by hand to each other, and had endless leisurely conversations about life and art.
Just as I thought that it was a pity that no one makes such fine programs anymore, a cousin sent me a link to a relatively recent serial called Upanishad Ganga, a 52 part series which presented the wisdom of the Upanishads in one hour long fictionalised episodes.
I was not surprised to discover that the program had been broadcast by Doordarshan, which remains the gold standard for quality television content in the minds of millions of Indian viewers. Dramatizing stories from the Upanishads which are considered to be the essence of Indian philosophy in the form of short capsules is a huge challenge and the producers have been successful in their vision. The concepts, the settings, the costumes, the actors and above all, the screenplay blend together beautifully. Employing the structure of stories within a story, the series is portrayed as stage dramas presented by a group of artists who question the relevance of Sanskrit and the scriptures in present times. The episodes raise profound philosophical questions, suggest possible answers and leave the watching seeker both enriched and inspired.