Double Bill

Umberto Eco

Numero Zero is the last novel Eco published before his death earlier this year. It’s relatively short (only 191 pages), and relatively easy reading, for Eco. I did, however, find it less accessible than his longer, likely more esoteric works.

The Name of the Rose riffed on many of the heresies that arose in the 14th Century; Foucault's Pendulum is based on the “lost secret” of the Templars; The Island of the Day Before, dealt with vagaries of 17th Century science; and Baudolino played with theories about the medieval world and the search for the Kingdom of Prester John.

Fairly obscure themes, all of them, but I did happen to have some preliminary acquaintance with them, so slowly but surely the pattern of the novels became more and more clear. Numero Zero, however, deals with internal Italian politics in 1992, rumors of Mussolini’s survival, and the peculiarities of the press. Knowing little to nothing about Italian politics, I had to pin the novel to the peculiarities of the press, which gave some satisfaction, but not nearly as much as it could have, had I known enough to get the political jokes.

Still and all, I always find something to enjoy in an Eco novel. There are two others that I haven’t read, but one is already on my shelf and the other is on my list.

Toni Morrison

Song of Solomon takes place in a small African American community that, as in so many of Morrison’s books, seems rarely to interact with the surrounding white population. And yet the people themselves have been, since the days of slavery, defined by the white population, beginning with a mistake on a form that literally gives one family’s name as Dead.

On a micro level it is a coming-of-age story of one young man, Milkman Dead, in the 50’s, in the age of Emmet Till, of Rosa Parks, of so much that might define the later years of young men coming of age at that time. On the macro level, it is a search for a lost identity, for stolen names, for definition of who a people are and who they came from.

He closed his eyes and thought of the black men in Shalimar, Roanoke, Petersburg, Newport News, Danville, in the Book Bank, on Darling Street, in the pool halls, the barbershops. Their names. Names they got from yearnings, gestures, flaws, vents, mistakes, weaknesses. Names that bore witness. Macon Dead, Sing Byrd, Crowell Byrd, Pilate, Reba, Hagar, Magdalene, First Corinthians, Milkman, Guitar, Railroad Tommy, Hospital Tommy, Empire State (he just stood around and swayed), Small Boy,Sweet, Circe, Moon, Nero, Humpty-Dumpty, Blue Boy, Scandinavia, Quack-Quack, Jericho, Spoonbread, Ice Man, Dough Belly, Rocky Rover, Gray Eye, Cock-a-Doodle-Doo, Cool Breeze, Muddy Waters, Pinetop, Jelly Roll, Fats, Leadbelly, Bo Diddley, Cat-Iron, Peg-Leg, Son, Shortstuff, Smoky Babe, Funny Papa, Bukka, Pink, Bull Moose, B.B., T-Bone, Black Ace, Lemon, Washboard, Gatemouth, Cleanhead, Tampa Red, Juke Boy, Shine, Staggerlee, Jim the Devil, Fuck-Up, and Dat Nigger.

There is much here that is reminiscent of Stephen St. Vincent Benet’s American Names, and there would be even more were it similar in other ways. But Benet’s names are given by people who know their own names, who take on or bestow others in colorful ways of their own making. They may, in some cases, be denying a heritage, running from the law, or just earning a nickname the way people do. I have the feeling that in the case of these black men, their names are more than that. They are names they have somehow earned, and have a legitimacy to them that the names on their birth certificates don’t have. Because who knows where those names came from. They certainly didn’t come from the land of their forefathers. And they didn’t originate in pride.

As always, Morrison’s writing is a little uncomfortable for white folks, especially white folks like me who grew up around the same time as Milkman Dead, knowing next to nothing about the black community that existed a few short blocks from my house in Decatur, Illinois. It may even be uncomfortable for black folks, but I can’t speak to that. I just know that the reality of our past is often an uncomfortable place to visit, no matter what color we are.