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An Eco is an Eco is an Eco

'Someone like Umberto is of greater value on earth than in heaven.' Actor Roberto Benigni, known for films such as La vita è bella, said goodbye to his friend on Tuesday Umberto Eco (1932-2016) at his funeral at the Castello Sforzesco in Milan. Eco's grandson also spoke and thanked his grandfather for the stories told, the crossword puzzles, the books and music they experienced together. 'To have had you as a grandfather fills me with pride.'

The Italian newspapers - La Reppublica, Corriere dela Sera, l'Unitá, to name but a few - have for days been paying plenty of attention to the passing of one of the greatest contemporary writers of Italy, of Europe or the world even, a scholar and beloved professor at the University of Bologna. People said goodbye to him con un sorriso, with a smile.

In the coming weeks, supplements and specials in newspapers and magazines will continue to report on Eco in abundance. He was an author who was widely respected, not least because his work was translated all over the world and he thus managed to take Italian culture and literature beyond national borders. He was also loved as a professor. Anyone hoping to attend one of Eco's lectures had to be quick rather than clever: they were invariably booked up months in advance. Moreover, Eco was not only a novelist and professor, but also wrote numerous essays on politics in, among others La Republica, in which he firmly criticised politicians such as former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Eco thus made his voice clearly heard in the social sphere as well. The square in front of the Castello Sforzesco was therefore packed at the farewell service.

That was Tuesday.

Two days earlier, in a small Italian mountain village in Umbria. By chance, a note comes to our attention pointing to Umberto Eco's death. It takes a while for it to sink in: Umberto Eco has died. The writer we hoped to interview one more time, one of the last great writers of his generation, an icon. In this medieval fortified town, where nothing happens and you can live as if the rest of the world does not exist (phone and internet coverage are minimal here), it is very easy to miss world news, it turns out. Sitting there in the local bakery-bar-ice-cream shop just recovering from your loooooong caffè doppio, you discover to your horror that Umberto Eco has died. As early as Friday. And you have to conclude that, to your great shame as a literary journalist, this fact has completely escaped you, while you are in Italy, no less! And moreover, you know that not only are you late, but you also don't have your bookcase to hand nor a good working internet connection nor a shop with a good assortment of Italian newspapers. And that you are therefore totally hopeless to deliver a somewhat woodcutting piece, and miles away (1,500 kilometres) from the place you would like to be right now lol.

The last of his generation

That already rules out news report, necrology, eyewitness account of the mourning in Italy and thoughtful reflection - not feasible. But letting this news, this event, pass unnoticed is not an option either. For how much it concerns us lovers of literature that the world increasingly has to say goodbye to writers of this generation. Gabriel García Márquez, José Saramago, Günter Grass... Great, epic storytellers who gave their vision of the changing world around them, of history, of human beings. Erudite writers, who knew how to package knowledge into compelling - in Eco's case, even very exciting - comprehensive histories with a certain eternal value. In fact, we hardly have any storytellers of these epic proportions anymore; the world has become faster, more concise, more volatile, and with it, the stories that help shape it.

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The work of Umberto Eco, who became famous with, among others The name of the rose, Foucault's pendulum, The island of the previous day and Prague cemetery, was literally and figuratively monumental. Or, to use the Corriere della Sera speaking: Un Eco è un Eco è un Eco è un Eco...

'Enjoy, but read in moderation'

Often his novels were solid pills, in which he not only forged together all sorts of intrigue with palpable pleasure, but also elaborated endlessly on all sorts of details, whether about sewage, bomb-making or culinary dishes, as for instance in Prague cemetery. Moderation was not the strong suit of this professor who smoked two to three packets of cigarettes a day. As a result, Eco could sometimes come across as a toppled bookcase, impressing his readers (at least these readers) with all his erudition to such an extent that they retreated into a corner in humble reverence.

At the same time, the pleasure he took in writing, gathering that incredible wealth of facts and spinning an intricate and enigmatic web of intrigue was so palpably great - I always see his portraits before me, often with a big smile on his face - that it was infectious. Reading Umberto Eco was and is an experience, as fascinating as it is dizzying. Enjoy, but read in moderation.

With the slow extinction of this generation of epic writers, something is really being lost to this world. Just as our world is losing greats in other areas - artists like David Bowie, to name but one - people of stature that current writers or artists will not reach any time soon, simply because today's world no longer has the slow pace of a few decades ago, but many times more inhabitants. How many writers will there still be of them with such a vast, imposing and grand oeuvre?

wistfully, from the rampart in our little Italian town, we wave goodbye to this literary giant. A few days late, admittedly, but with heart nonetheless. Ciao, Umberto, ciao. Buon' viaggio! Luckily, we still have our bookcase at home. Un Eco è un Eco è un Eco...

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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