Umberto Eco is one of those authors who frustrates me. I truly enjoyed The Name of the Rose. I liked Foucault’s Pendulum as much, if not more. On the other hand, I gave up on Baudolino after about 100 pages. I did not give up on Eco’s new work, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and, in fact, read it fairly rapidly. Still, part of me wishes I had found other uses for the time.
The novel is about Giambattista “Yambo” Bodoni, a Milan rare book dealer in his 60s. Yambo comes out of a coma to discover he has a unique form of amnesia. He can remember the plots of and verbatim passages from virtually every book he has read, including comic books. He does not, however, remember his name, his wife, his children or any other detail of or event in his life. In fact, even his vivid literary recollection is without a frame of reference as he is unable to place any work in the context of his own life. As a result, all his memory and knowledge lack emotion and nuance. As he tells his wife when she comments that a compliment he pays her seems uncharacteristic, “You’ll have to forgive me. I can’t seem to say anything that comes from the heart. I don’t have feelings, I only have memorable sayings.”
The first part of the book deals with Yambo awakening from his coma and his initial attempts to cope with life as a person who can’t “remember images, or smells, or flavors. I only remember words.” He finds, though, that relying on friends and family to try to recapture his past means he is just learning their memories, not his own. Thus, in the second and longest part of the book, Yambo goes to his childhood home, large portions of which he abandoned decades ago. He rummages through a long-closed attic and a variety of rooms to see if the contents will resurrect his memory. This portion of the text is highlighted with illustrations of covers of and pictures from books, sheet music, magazines, records and a wide variety of detritus. In an interview, Eco says the images are those of his personal memorabilia and they certainly lend authenticity to Yambo’s endeavor.
While an occasional song, name or photo stir up a minor flame of vague recollection, what we and Yambo discover is that he is not recapturing his memories. Rather, he is reliving the experiences of an entire generation. And that is perhaps the biggest problem with the book. Originally published in Italy last year, we revisit the experiences of Eco and his contemporaries as they grew up in Italy following the rise of fascism and through World War II. While perhaps appealing to those with an interest in that aspect of Italian history and culture, a significant portion of the references and allusions are obscure to an American reader. (In fact, an English language web site has been set up simply to annotate them all.)
Overall, Eco is a fine enough writer that he keeps the reader interested enough to stay with the book to see what Yambo may resurrect. However, he overplays fog as a theme for Yambo’s memory problems and having Yambo search through a cob-webbed attic also seems a trite vehicle for a hunt for lost memories. Ultimately, we discover the core search is for Yambo’s first love, a search that comprises the final part of the book and whose culmination is told largely in illustrated novel form.
Some may find Queen Loana‘s combination of a search for identity with a popular culture review of mid-20th century Italian history. To me, the thought-provoking exploration of the former was overwhelmed by Eco’s tour of his youth.