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The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

by Umberto Eco/Translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock
469 pages,
ISBN: 1896951872


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Mnemonic Collage
by Patricia Robertson

In Umberto Eco's playful, nostalgic new novel, a man wakes up "suspended in a milky gray" and discovers he's in a hospital bed. His mind fills with quotations about fog from the world's literature¨Poe, Simenon, Hesse, Sandburg¨but he has no idea what has happened to him or who he is. "A slight case of retrograde amnesia," his doctor tells him. He still retains the memory of common objects and information, but he has lost the episodes of his own life. And so this 60-year-old antiquarian book dealer in Milan, nicknamed Yambo, decides to undertake a heroic quest for his memories in order to reconstitute his self. With the help of his psychologist wife Paola and his lifelong friend Gianni, he must unlock the treasure of his own identity and, as it turns out, trace his life's earliest manifestations of desire.
Such a plot runs the risk of being highly static; we spend a lot of time, after all, in Yambo's head. That Eco succeeds, for the most part, in making this journey entertaining, funny, and poignant is a tribute to both his linguistic skills and his facility with various genres: memoir, thriller, detective story, romance. Yambo¨even his nickname, that of a comic-book hero, is literary¨inhabits a world in which, as he says, "I never emerged from books." His real name, Giambattista Bodoni, is literary too (though Eco doesn't tell us this); it belonged to the eighteenth-century designer of the classic Bodoni typeface. Still, Yambo's life hasn't been an ascetic one. He's the father of two adult daughters, grandfather of three boys, and has a beautiful assistant named Sibilla with whom he may (or may not) have had an affair. "My memory is [now] made of paper," he says, knowing that unlike real memories, paper ones don't include feelings. Intellectual knowledge, Eco seems to be suggesting, may enrich us immeasurably, but it cannot provide a complete life.
When he finds himself humming a popular Italian postwar song one morning, Yambo recognises his first true memory. It's no accident, in such a consciously literary novel, that sound is the trigger, paralleling the taste of of certain flavours that elicits Proust's great meditation on the same theme. For the first time since his "incident" Yambo feels something, a something that he compares to "a mysterious flame". The flame is also kindled by Sibilla when Yambo visits his bookstore after leaving the hospital. "Perhaps one day I really could penetrate that fog [of memory], if Sibilla were to lead me by the hand," he thinks. This proves prophetic, since the story is book-ended by two Sibillas, one of whom turns out to have been that elusive, idealised first love. Both women, as their name indicates, share the oracular, cryptic, mysterious qualities of the ancient Greek sibyls.
But first Yambo must make that internal journey through his past. It's Paola who suggests that he return to Solara, the country farmhouse where he spent much of his childhood, and which he has largely avoided since the death of his parents in a car accident. Here, fussed over by the elderly servant Amalia, he begins excavating the house's contents. His model is Sherlock Holmes, who he describes as "like me, motionless and isolated from the world, deciphering pure signs." And what a treasure trove he finds! His grandfather, conveniently, turns out to have been a collector and bookseller himself, and Yambo unearths old magazines, boys' adventure stories, postcards, stamp collections, song lyrics, and ancient gramophone albums¨a complete record, it seems, of an Italian childhood in the Fascist and postwar years. The Fascist "cult of horror", as Yambo calls it, is on full display here, with its glorifying of death for the Motherland. Eco deploys exquisitely reproduced illustrations to add to the text, some from his own collection¨old photographs, period advertisements, comic strips, and propaganda posters. Images of the idealised feminine are here too, represented by real- life performers such as the 1920s cabaret singer Josephine Baker, advertisements, and fictional characters, key among them the mysterious Queen Loana, the protagonist of a boys' adventure story. As the presiding genius of the novel (and the source of the title), she's the guardian of a flame that grants immortality. "Years later," Yambo realizes, "my memory in shambles, I had reactivated the flame's name to signal the reverberation of forgotten delights."
Various objects throughout the story, both personal and communal, give rise to the "mysterious flame": a honeymoon photo of Yambo's parents, his parents' bedroom itself, a photographic still of the English actor George Formby from the 1940 film It's in the Air. Along the way, Yambo must also relive a traumatic event from the war years, when as a fourteen-year-old he is caught up in a dangerous escape mission and must demonstrate personal courage. We meet his old mentor Gragnola, the most vivid character in the book, a member of the anti-Fascist resistance who smokes Milit cigarettes to "disinfect" his TB-ridden lungs, and plans, if caught, to kill himself with a surgeon's lancet that hangs round his neck. "I'll be screwing them all," he says. "The Fascists because they won't learn a thing [through torturing him], the priests because I'll be a suicide and that's a sin, and God because I'll be dying when I choose and not when he chooses. Put that in your pipe and smoke it."
Yambo's search ends not only with the full integration of his "paper memory" but also the discovery of a literal treasure¨the bibliophilistic find of a lifetime¨which unfortunately pitches him back into the "fog" of a second incident. Once again, but now without his mnemonic aids, he relives his childhood and adolescence, terminating in a kind of fevered comic-book fantasy sequence that¨well, to tell more would mean revealing the ending of the story. Suffice it to say that we're brought full circle as art and reality merge.
The text, as can be expected¨this is an Eco novel¨is packed with literary references, including the author's previous works. But Eco also relishes popular culture¨the comic, the pulp novel, sentimental songs¨and his evocation of 1930s and '40s Italy is rich and vivid. In fact Yambo himself proclaims, "I had not relived my own childhood so much as that of a generation." (For those who want to track down the novel's many literary allusions, there's a wonderful ongoing annotation project at www.queenloana.wikispaces.org). Yet there are times when the narrative slows¨when, for example, we're offered one too many examples of Yambo's childhood reading¨and times when it feels overstuffed and overdetermined. This is partly due to Eco's heavy emphasis on symbols¨fog and flame being the most insistent¨but even more to his determination to tease out every possible nuance of Yambo's thought processes. It's as though Eco the professor seizes the upper hand from the storyteller, depriving us of the pleasure of figuring things out for ourselves.
Still, though I occasionally found myself bumping into the furniture of the novel, what marvellous furniture! Eco's language is one of these marvels: he describes a box of pencils as "all still perfectly aligned and untouched, like a scholar's ammo belt." Being angry with God, Yambo notes at one point, is "like throwing rocks at a rhinoceros." Geoffrey Brock's translation does a wonderful job of capturing the book's simultaneously erudite and comic tone, but why do publishers regularly neglect to acknowledge translators, who rarely rate a biographical note?
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana becomes, in the end, much more than a catalogue of one man's memories. It's a fascinating, multi-hued container of a particular period in history, a map of how consciousness is formed, and guide to the relationship between art and reality. The novel itself becomes a kind of mysterious flame that flickers alluringly, reminding us that we all participate in our own dramas of reinvention.
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