The BS column: Umberto and the Tiger of Malaysia

Suspended by a 130-foot long cord, a giant pendulum swept back and forth across the halls of a basilica in Bologna, recreating Foucault’s famous experiment. Perhaps the most famous of the assembled watchers there to testify that the world still rotates on its axis, as Foucault proved 154 years ago, was Umberto Eco.

This was on October 8, just two weeks before Eco’s first vist to India. As we watched him turn a panel discussion into a superlative solo performance this Sunday, I thought of what the author of Foucault’s Pendulum had said about Foucault’s pendulum recently: “”We think of ourselves as a fixed point in the universe. But in fact, we are all ‘gironzolini’ [wandererers].”

Eco’s reputation is such an imposing edifice—philosopher, semiotician, linguist, bestselling popular novelist—that the gentle reminders he issues from time to time are necessary. “I am a teller of tales,” he’s said in several interviews. He refers to the process of writing novels simply as “narrating”, claiming an ancient link between today’s most experimental writers and the oldest bards and griots. From The Island of the Day Before to The Name of the Rose to his most recent fictional work, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana , all his novels have been “books built of books”.

Eco is speaking on knowledge exchanges between cultures, a topic that springs to life when he begins with an anecdote about a very famous gironzolini—Marco Polo. In his telling, even though Marco Polo was a man from a mercantile background, he must have known the legends of unicorns. On his travels in Asia and Africa, Marco Polo saw animals that looked like unicorns. “To be sure, they were black; their hooves were as big as elephant’s hooves; and while the legend of unicorns says that the beasts could be captured by virgins, in whose laps they would lay their heads, these unicorns acted quite differently with any virgins they met.” Polo had seen rhinoceri, not unicorns.

“We cannot say he did not tell the truth. He was the victim of his ‘background books’.” The question Eco wants to ask today is simple: “Can we travel without the background books?”

Afterwards, I ask him about his own “background books”. This is tricky terrain. Eco’s own library may not be as vast as the Borgesian one he created in The Name of the Rose (he paid tribute to Borges by naming his fictional librarian Jorges of Burgo). It is legendary, though. He lives in a remodelled hotel building in Milan, and has converted its long corridors into the shelves of his library. It contains over 30,000 books, and being Eco, he has read them all.

But the name he invokes is not what I expect at all. “I know your country through Sandokan,” he says, his sharp eyes twinkling with mischief. He inherited a taste for popular literature—Verne, Dumas, Salgari–from his grandmother, who made no distinction between the literary and the dime-store novel, and perhaps this is what allows him to discourse as comfortably on porn films, blue jeans and mobile phones as semiotics and language theory today.

Indians remember Sandokan (“the Tiger of Malaysia”) for the TV serial and Kabir Bedi’s charms, but the books, by Emilio Salgari, were quite astonishing. Salgari was no traveller—the longest journey he undertook is said to have been an Adriatic cruise—but this didn’t prevent him from setting the Sandokan books in exotic locations. Sandokan was an early anti-imperialist, a Robin Hood-style pirate whose war against the agents of Empire takes him to Malaysia, the Caribbean, and even to the Sunderbans where the Thugs are doing their bit to strangle the forces of imperialism, all too literally.

So Umberto Eco’s favourite “background books” on India are these swashbuckling epics of exoticisation where the hero faces Black Jungles or embarks on Kohinoor-inspired quests. (This is no barrier for him; he can still, listening to bad translations from Sanskrit, one of the few languages he doesn’t have under his considerable belt, discern the shape of the original.) And I love the idea that stories about river pirates and warriors against the East India Company would have travelled far enough to reach an Italian popular novelist who never saw the country himself, and then have travelled down the ages to reach the man who would become one of the greatest public intellectuals of his time. We are all gironzoloni, of one kind or another.


(Carried in Speaking Volumes, the Business Standard, October 25, 2005)

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