PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 November, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 November, 2002, 12:00am

I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth.

Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum

Life: Umberto Eco's grandfather was an orphan given the family surname by an inspired civil servant. Eco is apparently an acronym for 'ex caelis oblatus', or 'offered by the heavens': spookily apt, given the author's attraction to the otherworldly.

He was raised against the brutal backdrop of World War II. From his home near Milan, he witnessed the gun battles between the fascists and the partisans. For the sake of security, his accountant father tried to persuade him to become a lawyer.

Succumbing to pressure, he entered the University of Turin to read law but promptly dropped it in favour of his life's love, medieval philosophy and literature. Eco wrote his thesis on Thomas Aquinas, the friar and theologian, and earned his doctorate of philosophy in 1954. Eco then worked for RAI, the Italian state broadcasting company, wrote a popular, typically inventive newspaper column and lectured at a slew of Italian universities before becoming Professor of Semiotics (the study of signs) at Bologna in 1971. He embarked on his philosophical whodunnit, The Name Of The Rose in 1978 because, he said, he 'felt like poisoning a monk'.

When the book was published two years later, it won overnight acclaim, disseminating his name beyond academia and making him one of Italy's most feted writers, seen in the same league as Italo Calvino.

Since then, only Foucault's Pendulum - Eco's meditation on astronomy, Satanism and voodoo - has achieved comparable success. But the 70-year-old lives well, dividing his time between a 17th-century Rimini manor and a labyrinthine Milan apartment equipped with a library housing more than 30,000 books.

Eco has said truth can never be found in commotion but rather in silent research. Yet he is a boisterous, humorous character prone to shouting during discussions.

Work (abridged): The Name Of The Rose (1983); Semiotics And The Philosophy Of Language (1984); Semiotics And The Philosophy Of Language (1986); The Aesthetics Of Thomas Aquinas (1988); Art And Beauty In The Middle Ages (1988); The Three Astronauts (1989); The Aesthetics Of Chaosmos (1989); Foucault's Pendulum (Harcourt, 1989); The Limits Of Interpretation (1990); Interpretation And Overinterpretation (1992); How To Travel With A Salmon And Other Essays (1994); Six Walks In The Fictional Woods (1994); Apocalypse Postponed (1994); The Search For The Perfect Language (1995); The Island Of The Day Before (1995); Talking Of Joyce (1998); Serendipities: Language And Lunacy (1998); Kant And The Platypus (1999); Experiences In Translation (2000); Belief Or Nonbelief? A Confrontation (2001); Five Moral Pieces (2002) Baudolino (2002).

Subplot: One thread that runs through all Eco's fiction is the arcane. He delights in symbols, hints, equestrian games, masquerades, paintings, courtly arms, trophies, escutcheons, ironic epigrams and riddles.

At times Eco can feel like the high priest of mumbo jumbo.

What kind of reader did he have in mind when he wrote Kant And The Platypus, which argues reality has interior 'lines of resistance' comparable to the grain in wood and reveals how the opening line of The Waste Land would read if translated into the language of the Smurfs? Eco's latest offering, Baudolino, is a typically extravagant medieval tale with a cast including Charlemagne, the sacred remains of the Magi and the Holy Grail, not to mention some eunuchs and a unicorn - about the only thing missing from the menagerie is a Smurf.

But at least the Eco oeuvre offers relief from the tyranny of realism and in all its lunacy can be hilarious, like the man himself. Very much the court jester, he reportedly has the capacity to tell jokes non-stop for more than an hour.