David Ward On… Serendipities by Umberto Eco


I figured I’d take the opportunity to do my “On…” column on one of my favourite books this time around, and, strangely enough, it has nothing to do with visceral horror! I’m writing about an old and treasured favourite: Serendipities by Umberto Eco. I know Eco isn’t for everyone. One friend of mine once said he could never finish a book by him because he constantly had to refer to the dictionary. While he’s not that bad, some of his books are a little dense. I wanted to write about a favourite and much more accessible title. Outside of his fiction, I’ve re-read his essays more than any other type of his works – some of his academic and theoretical books make my brains drip out of my ears.

Serendipities has the dubious honour of being a piece of non-fiction whose subtitle captures its content perfectly: Language and Lunacy. In brief, the book is an intellectual history comprising five short essays (the entire book only works out to about 128pp) about the unanticipated end-results of fallacies, fakes, and forgeries. Serendipity, in other words. From enterprise A, via route B, we find result C, even though the three composite points may have very little or nothing to do with one another.

The book is a brief extension of Eco’s earlier work The Search for the Perfect Language (good luck finding a copy of that one, by the way – it had a brief publication history via Blackwell Publishing in the mid-90s), though one doesn’t have to have read one to read the other. In the introduction to Serendipities he mentions that some stories had to be left out of The Search for the Perfect Language but would find their home elsewhere. Hence Serendipities. The five stories surround the force of falsity, the language of Eden, the appeal and misunderstanding of Asiatic and Middle-Eastern writing systems and languages, the European obsession with an eastern and southern land that captures Utopia, and the fallacious and hypocritical linguistic system of a self-styled occultist and Rosicrucian.

What I enjoy most about these essays is their relative accessibility. They’re brief snapshots of really interesting aspects of European intellectual thought and obsession. Where else are you going to find a book that touches on misreadings of Egyptian hieroglyphics, Ptolemy, the I-Ching, forged documents about a fantastical Christian kingdom in Asia Minor, conspiracies arising from fictions and plagiarism, philosophically perfect but impossible languages, Rosicrucians, the concept of Utopia, a medieval Irish treatise on the birth of a post-Babel language, and Dante’s interest in the form and utterance of language?

Admittedly, all of these subjects can be found in Eco’s novels – the man is obsessed in his own right with fakes, misreadings, conspiracies, and the interpretation of language. Foucault’s Pendulum, Baudolino, and The Prague Cemetery, in particular, all deal with them. In fact, the germs of all of the ideas that started these novels are in Serendipities, which offers a glimpse into the historical realities that underlie his novels. I wouldn’t quite call it a Coles Notes for Eco’s fictions; it’s more of a glimpse into narrative versimilitude.

Also, the image on the book’s front cover is a painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder entitled “The Tower of Babel”. It hangs in the dining area of my apartment on the opposite wall from a Dalek.



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