Even scrapings from the table of a writer such as Umberto Eco should be accepted with gratitude. As Eco himself acknowledges, the essays in Serendipities are really nothing more than a collection of footnotes to an earlier and much more detailed work, The Search for the Perfect Language. The title of that book referred to an enduring and peculiar obsession in European culture: the belief that there had once been a language that had embodied the absolute essence of everything signified by its own grammar and vocabulary. Eco's concern in his new book is to demonstrate how the very lunacy of that quest served to breed accidental, unanticipated truths.
To justify the plural in his title, Eco offers a cursory overview of other, canonical, examples of serendipity. He reminds us that the Ptolemaic image of the universe helped to bring about Columbus's arrival in America, and that the fraudulent Donation of Constantine underpinned papal power for centuries. Evidently, he is not indulging in wilful paradox when he argues that history is a theatre of illusion. Nor, Eco being Eco, is he shy of pointing out the obvious implication of this perspective: that if illusion and reality are interdependent, then our sense of both concepts can never be final. Only in his favoured field of linguistics, however, does Eco pursue this idea with the polymathic subtlety that has been the keynote of his best work. He does this, in part, by highlighting the modern aspects of seemingly antiquated debates, the way in which, for instance, Chomsky's concept of innate grammar was foreshadowed by a school of medieval thought that saw divine language as implicit in Adam's mind. But Eco does not only analyse the theological games of the medieval mystics, he also mimics them. So it is that he believes in, but cannot categorically prove, the influence of the Jewish Kabbala on Dante, just as, for the Kabbalists themselves, the knowledge of a truth did not require a definition. Eco is unusual among academic writers in that he delights in something that remains hidden and the games he can play by acknowledging it.
For the non-specialist reader, it is this ludic brand of erudition that makes Eco such good value even when he is at his most arid. It has been argued that the reason for the success of The Name of the Rose, his best-selling novel, was that it enabled its readers to feel cleverer than they really were; the same effect is evident in Serendipities. In both the novel and the collection of essays, the reader is inveigled into a labyrinth of paradoxes and arcana, tantalised with hints of gnostic revelations, implicated in the same quest for a veiled truth that is Eco's own theme. It is not surprising that the spirit of Borges should haunt Serendipities: both the content and the style seem consciously to echo him. He writes, "I find in Moshe Idel's Language, Torah, and Hermeneutics in Abraham Abulafia a surprising quotation from an unpublished manuscript by an anonymous disciple of Abulafia, where it is said that . . ." This is pure Borges: even the quotation from the anonymous disciple of Abulafia that follows is pure Borges. Only our awareness that Eco is writing with the scholarly rigour appropriate to one of the world's leading semioticians prevents us from assuming that he has made the whole thing up.
Indeed, there are times when one can sense that Eco wishes he were writing fiction. This is most obvious during his account of the Rosicrucian Order, an invented society so powerful and occult that it was actually brought into existence by the desire of people to believe that it was true. A similar theme inspired Foucault's Pendulum and, as Eco readily acknowledges, Borges' short story Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius. His regret at a good idea already used is palpable, and it suggests what Eco would have liked to be doing with Serendipities. We are left in this book, for all its fascination, with the sense of a game not fully played out.
Tom Holland's fifth novel, "The Sleeper in the Sands", is published by Little, Brown, £9.99