to one another. To live is to remember and to remember is to live. To die is to forget and to forget is to die." Samuel Butler
I approached Umberto Eco's new novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, with some trepidation. I have sometime found Eco's work to be a bit difficult to get through. It became very apparent that I would have no such problems with this book. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was not only a very accessible book but, more importantly, it was at once both immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Before turning to the book itself, I found it interesting that the book is filled with illustrations. Throughout the book World War Two propaganda posters, newspaper clippings, comic book pages, and ads from Italian fashion magazines are printed alongside the text. Some might assert that Eco's reliance on illustrations may detract from the text or represent something of a gimmick. I think the illustrations are visually stunning and serve to recreate the social and political atmosphere of Italy in the 1930s and 1940s during which time much of the book takes place. They add a visual punch to the thoughts of Eco's narrator.
The book opens with Giambattista Boldoni, a 59-year old rare book dealer, awaking from a light coma in a hospital after suffering a stroke. It is determined quickly that Boldoni, known to his friends and family since childhood as Yambo, is suffering from partial amnesia. Although he has a vivid memory of social and cultural events through his life he has no memory of anything relating to his personal life. The first chapter is a classic of pop-culture allusions and metaphors. Yambo's sentences come out in stream of consciousness fashion with no personal context at all. Yambo's sentences consist of a series of bits of quotations from Poe, Conan-Doyle, Robert Lewis Stevenson, songs, ad slogans and other reference that I could spend weeks trying to identify. The rest of the book, like Eco's Name of the Rose of The Island of the Day before is something of a detective story. Yambo turns sleuth and sets out to discover who he is and how he came to be him.
Yambo and his wife agree in short order that this mystery would best be solved if Yambo moves back to his family's country home were Yambo spent most of his childhood. He arrives to find that most of his possessions and those of his parents and grandparents are stored in the attic or in various locations throughout the house. He begins opening boxes to find old phonograph records, school notebooks, photographs, Italian and American comic books and newspaper clippings dating back to the 30s and 40s'. Some of these items ignite a little spark in his head (as Eco puts it) but nothing really serves to restore his memories. Those little sparks seem futile and frustrate Yambo, like a butane cigarette lighter on a windy day must frustrate a smoker just dying to light up a smoke. Nevertheless, Yambo makes some progress. About halfway through the book Eco introduces a dramatic twist in the plot (which will not be divulged) that changes the nature of Yambo's quest.
The second half of the book is devoted to Yambo's examination of his life as he now remembers it and the meaning of his quest for his identity. Answer to questions raised in the first half of the book, such as Yambo's strange attraction for foggy days, are explained. The tone of the narrative in this half of the book is quite different from the narrative in the first. As more information is revealed to Yambo, and to the reader, the focus turns not just to Yambo's quest for memory but the importance of memory in one's life. At the same time, what we choose to forget is sometimes just as important to the structure of our lives as that which we choose to remember.
The intricate thought processes of Yambo as he seeks to recreate his life are set out beautifully by Eco. It is hard to describe the impact of Eco's writing except to refer back to the sentences that Samuel Butler wrote after those lines that started this review:
"Everything is so much involved in and is so much a process of its opposite that, as it is almost fair to call death a process of life and life a process of death, so it is to call memory a process of forgetting and forgetting a process of remembering." Memory and forgetfulness are as life and death to one another, for Yambo and, through Yambo's thoughts, to the reader.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is well worth reading.