Gunjeet Sra on the unlikely connection between Umberto Eco and Harper Lee
Spring isn’t the time for nostalgia, one usually saves that kind of self-indulgence for October. But two of my childhood literary heroes died last month, and it is making me wonder. If the test of any great art form is endurance, do children still read these books or are they reserved for the dusty back-corners of forgotten library shelves, to only be picked up for assignments or by recommendation?
Where I grew up, everybody had their own copy of Harper Lee’s, To Kill a Mockingbird and Umberto Eco’s, The Name of the Rose. One progressed from one to the other. It was a rite of passage. Of course, there were other books too on that list. Year after year, girls of the same age, picked up the same books, jotted down lists of what they had read and what they had missed. Each book earned them one step deeper into the labyrinths of literature. It was a game, almost like a treasure hunt. We exchanged them, wrapped them in brown paper sheets to hide their covers, bound them to make them look like text books, hid them in our ruled notebooks during study hours, under elbows on our way to the dining hall and occasionally even feigned sickness in the infirmary. Just so that we could squeeze in ten extra minutes somewhere to finish the chapter we had stated.
I did not start serious reading until middle school, and it was then, that I first chanced upon To Kill a Mockingbird. My best friend was engrossed in it and would not share the details of the plot except the occasional dramatic sigh and gasp. But before she went home for summer vacation in 1999, she took pity on me and thrust it into my hand with a “you have to read this.”
There is nothing worse that the feeling of being stuck in a place that seems to have been forgotten by the world, especially when you are young and so desperate to be relevant. In my obscure village, on my grandfather’s vast farm, with no other child for company, I took great solace in the character that was Scout. For the next week, I mixed my misadventures with her. As a tomboy she was extremely relatable in her experiences, questions and observations. Especially in her struggle with school and her struggle to conform to what the society expected out of her gender. Her closeness to Atticus mirrored mine to my father and his moral compass became a prism for me to view the world. Before this book, I had never read a novel that had impacted me so deeply. And contrary to popular taste, it was not Atticus Finch who was my hero, but the little girl, Scout Jean Louise Finch. She taught me that questioning was alright and hindsight would give me clarity. I kept those things in mind and life went on. Like all good books and characters, it became an indelible part of me, every time someone read it for the first time; we discussed it until we tore it apart, then reconstructed it before finally wrapping up that neat little discussion with a “Have you seen the movie?” It’s so good. Almost close to the book.”
However there was no such frivolity reserved for Umberto Eco. His reputation preceded him in the corridors of our library. When I started reading The Name of The Rose as a fervent seventeen-year-old literature snob, I got a raised eyebrow in return by my silent librarian. And rightly so. Much of the mature semiotics were lost on me, but if you looked at it only from a purely plot perspective, the book was still far from shabby. It was fantastic. The historical details of Europe of the 1300s had me fascinated with the continent—the clothing, the architecture, its religious philosophies and structures were a revelation. It became a periscope, in the sense, that it was an impossibly detailed looking glass into a completely unreachable world. The story of William Baskerville, a pre-renaissance humanist and the coming of age of Adso, who acted as a perfect foil in his naiveté, to his master’s experience, was something that I have been going back to each year. William Baskerville with his reason and tolerance became to me what Atticus would’ve been if Scout had not got in the way. The more I read Eco and this particular book, the more complex my relationship gets with it. With each new reading, deeper layers of the human intellect unravel, mirroring my own psychological developments from the first time I picked it up. Each discussion on the book ends with whether it is a classic or not, and “Have you seen the movie? Sean Penn or Christian Slater? It is almost as good as the book.”
Separated by two different worlds of Italy and America, Lee and Eco wrote about things that were vastly different. Lee, a recluse who used a pseudonym and was not very productive. Eco, an academic with the gift of the gab. One grew up in the South (USA), the other in Mussolini’s Italy. They had nothing in common except the fact that they died on the same day. Yet if one examines both these books, one so simple in its context and the other, so deliberately complex, one realises they are not so different after all. Human connection, questions of integrity, collective behaviour, tolerance and reason are topics that are raised in both these novels. Whether it is the racial segregation of the South or the superstitious religious schizophrenia of medieval Europe, both these novels tackle the issues with sensitivity and insight. At the center of their plot lie characters that act as moral compasses to the situations around them.
Since the national collective is in turmoil marred with prejudice, and nonconformity is deemed blasphemous. Now would be the perfect time to go back to books that resonated with us, way back when, because some of life will always be a rendition of childhood.