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Bookmark: Umberto Eco's books stir up life's dilemmas

November 17, 2011|By Julia Keller, The Chicago Tribune

On the fifth floor of the Chicago Tribune Tower is a square windowless room accessed by a single door.

This room is called, with a regrettable lack of imagination, the Book Room.

It will not surprise you to learn that it is filled with books. Day after day they arrive in a sharp-cornered cavalcade, books of every shape and size and color, books covering subjects both obvious and startling, both trivial and profound.

Fiction and nonfiction. Paperbacks and hardbacks. Good books and so-so books.

Publishers send us these books by the burgeoning boxful, hoping that we will decide to review them or interview the authors or otherwise notify the world of their existence.

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Upon receiving the happy news earlier this fall that I would be engaging in a conversation with Umberto Eco, that scintillatingly brilliant and verbally playful polymath, at the Chicago Humanities Festival, my first stop was the Book Room.

I snatched up an advance copy of "The Prague Cemetery," Eco's new novel, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. It's a beautiful volume, handsomely illustrated with period-specific engravings, and its diabolical story — a nasty, repulsive character responsible for many of the world's toxic prejudices and vile conspiracies spreads his poison with voluptuous abandon throughout late 19th century Europe — uncoils like a long, shimmering snake.

"Who am I?" asks this character, the odious and garrulous Simonini. "Perhaps it is better to ask me about my passions, rather than what I've done in my life. Whom do I love? No one comes to mind."

Before finishing "The Prague Cemetery," however, I was aware of a powerful urge to re-read two of Eco's previous works: "The Name of the Rose" (1980), a love letter to a library cleverly disguised as a murder mystery, and "Foucault's Pendulum" (1988), which, with its labyrinthine plot and its echo chamber of conspiratorial whisperings, serves as a sort of dry run for some of the ideas in "The Prague Cemetery."

Chief among these ideas is the notion that secrets and betrayals and obsessive plot-hatchings are as necessary to the human species as food, water and air. We can't seem to live without our puzzles, without the fiendish little plans and canny strategies over which we cackle with self-congratulatory glee.

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