How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, by Umberto Eco
Harcourt, 0-15-600235-X, 248 pp., 1992, 1994
I always feel behind in my reading: many of the classics, certain authors, certain works by certain authors. No matter often I remind myself that there’s only so much time to read in any given day, or that I’m relatively young and will have time to catch up, this feeling of being behind persists.
Thus, when I think of Umberto Eco, it’s usually as a novelist. In this capacity he is probably best known as the author of The Name of the Rose (1980, made into a film in 1986), Foucault’s Pendulum (1988) and, more recently, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2006).1 But he’s written far more non- than fiction; on philosophy, linguistics, literary criticism, and the present selection of delightful parodies. And I had no idea he could be so funny.
As Eco explains in the preface, the essays in How to Travel with a Salmon derive from a column he wrote for an Italian literary magazine, Il Verri. The original column ran between 1959 and 1961. These essays were collected and published in book form for the first time in 1963, and reprinted in 1957. Eco continued writing these “minimal diaries”, and How to Travel with a Salmon represents a selection from thirty years of drawers “crammed with abandoned manuscripts…that only an oral tradition kept alive”.2
The majority are only a page or two long, satirizing daily life, especially in Eco’s native Italy. Each piece concludes with the year it was written to provide context, and certainly in 2009 several are dated (for example, “How Not to Use a Fax Machine”), but charmingly so.
Many of the essays are presented as instructional guides, such as the optimistic title essay “How to Travel with a Salmon” and “How to Write an Introduction”. Others depict moral dilemmas such as the hopeless “How Not to Talk about Soccer”, where “How Not to Use the Cellular Phone” is a lesson in class consciousness. “Three Owls on a Chest of Drawers” is a wicked exercise in overly analytical literary criticism (with diagrams!).
One of my favourites, “How to Watch Out for Widows” warns writers to “beware of the use that posterity may make of your work”,3 as anything that can be published, just might be, whether or not it was ever intended to be made public. Daily shredding of documentation is advised, and tips for overcoming other potential pitfalls, such as correspondence which has already left your possession. For example, Eco recommends littering love-letters with “phrases that, however impassioned, are embarrassing for the for the addressee”.4 The example given here is the title of this blog post.
Incidentally, while overtly satirical, “How to Write an Introduction to an Art Catalogue” has truly practical advice. It could easily be adapted for reviewing books written by one’s friends and acquaintances. Just saying.5