Saturday, May 07, 2022

Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana


Opening Passage:

"And what's your name?"

"Wait, it's on the tip of the tongue."

That is how it all began. (p.3)

Summary: Giambattista Bodoni, known to friends and family as Yambo, is a Milanese seller of old books who has a stroke which causes him to lose his memory. He and his wife Paola (whom he does not remember) attempt to expose him to familiar things in the hope that something will jog his memory, with very little success. However, in looking at an old Disney comic (Clarabelle's Treasure), makes comments about it that lead Paola to realize that he is remembering something -- he's not simply remembering 'what everyone knows' (that Dante is a famous poet, for instance) or a skill like language (which can allude to broader context), but something autobiographical, because it's the sort of thing most people would never have read, but he remembers the story and its details clearly. This leads Paola to recognize that a promising line for attempting to recover his memories is to fall back on "paper memory". His childhood books are at his family house in Solara, so she encourages him to go back to Solara, so that he will be able to explore his paper memory in surroundings that might ring a bell. Exploring the paper memory does not uncover personal memories, but he does remember the stories, and going through them relives -- by a sort of paper experience, although it also includes music from old records -- the events of his generation, who grew up and lived through Fascist Italy and the Second World War. Eventually, however, he will find begin rediscovering his personal memories, when he finds an old folio by his grandfather and has another stroke because of it. One memory, however, the face of a girl he loved as a young man, remains elusive to the end.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is a detective story in a single mind. Most of the clues are psychological (and not always obviously clues), like his interest in old books and his taste in women, or the fact that he cannot quite remember the girl. Some are physical, like his old love poems. But slowly as we wander through Yambo's paper memory, Yambo and the reader begin to pull together an answer to a mystery, one that perhaps was not obviously a mystery to begin with, namely: What actually occasioned Yambo's stroke and amnesia? I suppose we could say that he lost his personal memory when one key set of memories were lost -- but those memories had structured his entire life and so when they went, all his memories of his life went, leaving only a skeleton of stories. A great deal of our sense of ourselves is in fact just our internalized culture (the story of 'our generation'), or else culture-based reconstruction, our inference from it  about how we must have been and thought -- but not the whole.

The 'mysterious flame' mentioned in the title is the Flame of Resurrection; Yambo's memories have died, and he is seeking for what will resurrect them. Here and there he gets a flicker, but when he gets the full flame, it will burn through his paper memory. 

Eco is probably the author that could come closest to pulling this all off. The book is a fascinating exploration of personal identity, but I don't think it completely succeeds as a novel. Part of the problem is that Yambo is just not a very likeable character, and (in any case) the story is Yambo discovering himself, so he starts out as an empty cipher to us because he is one. At several points I had the sense that there was an excellent short story here, but that it was getting a little lost as Eco's taste for encyclopedia and list expanded it to the size of a novel. Perhaps the best way to read it is not to read it as a story about Yambo but as a cultural tour of the generation that lived through Fascist Italy. And as such it is full of interest.

Favorite Passage: Given that the author is Umberto Eco, this is a bizarrely unquotable book; the way it is written makes almost any passage you could pick seem strange or random. But there are good passages, allowing for this:

If a cellar prefigures the underworld, an attic promises a rather threadbare paradise, where the dead bodies appear in a pulverulent glow, a vegetal elixir that, in the absence of green, makes you feel you are in a parched tropical forest, an artificial canebreak where you are immersed in a tepid sauna. (p. 120)

Recommendation: Recommended. It's a fascinating work, but you also shouldn't go into it expecting a normal kind of novel.


Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanna, Harcourt (NY: 2004).