The Italian Almanac

Umberto Eco

Italian Culture - June 6

Age, memory and nostalgia are the central themes of "Queen Loana", Umberto Eco's fifth novel, just published in English translation. Struck by amnesia, the narrator, an antiquarian book dealer, begins to dig through the paper trail of his early life in an attempt to kick-start his memory. The novel itself is illustrated with images from comics and children's books that may or may not be clues to the narrator's sequestered identity.

For Eco, of course, everything is a potential clue or sign. A professor at the University of Bologna, he continues to develop the field of semiotics, which he helped create in the 1960s and 1970s by studying the ways that people convey information. "Humans communicate with language but also with everything else we do. The books you own, the way you decorate your house, whether you wear a tie or not are all signs of something else," he explains. "That's semiotics in a nutshell."

The new story line plunges the author into a forensic examination of nostalgia. "By definition, the word nostalgia is the desire to return, to return to childhood or your 20s or 30s," says Eco, adding, "I'm fine where I am. My relationship with the past is one of tenderness and continuous discovery." One beat and he leans back with a laugh, having decided to confess: "O.K.," he says. "I have always been nostalgic for my childhood - it started when I was 14."

Eco's popular success as a writer derives from his ability to convey complex ideas simply and to let those ideas and his learned - sometimes arcane - references support his plots, rather than weigh them down. "Foucault's Pendulum", published in 1988, tells the story of three men in modern Italy whose intellectual games about the Knights Templar catapult them into danger. Along with "The Name of the Rose", it helped to spawn an industry of history-infused thrillers - most recently, Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code". Eco is not convinced by Brown's formula: "It's all old material that's been covered a thousand times before. Brown was very good at taking trash lying around and turning it into a page turner. But it makes me laugh that people take it seriously."