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Jorge Luis Borges's Influence on Umberto Eco

Written by son of rambow on Friday, July 30, 2010

This Italian writer and professor of semiotics has confessed a particular interest in many authors from James Joyce to Thomas Aquinas, over which he has penned quite a few nonfictional works; and his interest in Borges is such that he serves the J. L. Borges Center on its International Scientific Committee.
While Borges and references to Borges make plenty of appearances in his non-fiction, the Argentine Maestro has influenced his novels as well. The fiction of Umberto Eco is a delightful sojourn through the shimmering planes of history and mythology, and among the treasures to be uncovered are references to Borges as well as some parallels to Borgesian themes.

The Name of the Rose
The great library in this novel's monastery is a dark maze laden with puzzles and traps, a Babelian labyrinth where the scholar and monk William of Baskerville spends his time playing detective on a search for a semi-mythical work of Aristotle. The idea of a detective story fused with a mystical series of revelations is, of course, common in Borges's work; as is the idea of meandering eternal libraries and lost books. And as a sly tribute to the Argentine, Eco has given the head librarian of the monastery, a blind, venerable, and somewhat irascible individual, the rather suspect name of Jorge of Burgos!
Further speculation may be found in the excellent The Key to "The Name of the Rose" by Adele Haft, Jane G. White, and Robert J. White:

But perhaps no figure looms over The Name of the Rose more appealingly and ominously than that of Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, who has been metamorphosed into the character named Jorge of Burgos. Like Borges, Eco's monk Jorge is blind, "venerable in age and wisdom," and speaks Spanish as his native tongue.
The labyrinthine library at the center of The Name of the Rose is an ingenious variation of Borges' "The Library of Babel," a nightmarish short story about man's inability to decipher a meaningless world. Not only is there a physical resemblance between Eco's library and Borges', which is "composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries," "has a mirror in the hallway that duplicates all appearances," and represents the universe, but the narrator, an aging librarian, has spent his life in a futile search for one Book which possesses the secret of the world.
Labyrinths and mirrors are the two most common images in Borges' work. Labyrinths -- symbols of a world too chaotic and illusory to be reduced to any human law -- play a prominent role in Borges' "The Two Kings and their Labyrinths," in "The Garden of Forking Paths," "The Waiting," "Ibn Hakkan al-Bokhari, Dead in his Labyrinth," and "The House of Asterion," to name a few. Mirrors, linked to Borges' writings of doubles and identity crises, unreality, art, and dreams, are used not only as motifs but as structuring devices as well. In The Name of the Rose, William of Baskerville, relying on the logic of Aristotle, the theology of Aquinas, and the cognitive empiricism of Roger Bacon, must decipher the riddle of the library with its distorting mirror before he is able to unravel the mystery of the monastery's murders.
Eco and Borges are likewise both fascinated with maps and compasses, manuscripts and books, emblematic for both the world -- the liber mundi --, fantastic alphabets and maddeningly undecipherable languages, which, for Borges, represent the mind of God whose reasons for creating man and the universe remain an unfathomable mystery.

This novel stands firm as one of the classics of this century, and I could not recommend it more highly.

Foucault's Pendulum
In this massive work, the plot twists and turns its way through a strata of mythology, people, books, and strange cults, offering up in one chapter a refutation of all the mysticism laden through the others. In this I see not only the Borgesian themes of strange book-worshiping cults, but more importantly the idea that every great work should contain its own refutation as well.

I believe that Eco is one of the most gifted writers of our time, and reading him in the light of Borges adds much to the experience -- not because he copied the Argentine's ideas; which is a view both simple-minded and untenable -- but because Borges's writing opens up spaces that Eco explores even more thoroughly and with a startling creativity. Borges is famous for inventing authors who create imaginary novels, upon which Borges then writes a "review," saving him the trouble of actually writing a 500 page labyrinth; but Eco is one of those authors turned loose in real life, cheerfully warping our perspectives of reality as we run his literate mazes. []

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