Book review: Umberto Eco’s ‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’

This review originally ran in May 2005 in the Albany Times Union.

78769-coverMemory, identity evaporate in ‘Queen Loana’

Among life’s great chores is the sorting through of old papers, books, records and magazines long ago left in the attic. Few events combine such tedium with unexpected moments of rich nostalgia, in which a single image can rise from junk and make the past profoundly present and vital.

This is the magic of the intriguing but ultimately disappointing new novel by Umberto Eco, “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana” (Harcourt; 469 pages; $27; translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock).

In Milan, Italy, in late April 1991 (soon after the end of the Gulf war) our narrator has lost his memory. What happened isn’t clear, but all he can remember are things he’s read. The first few pages are filled with references to writers such as T.S. Eliot, Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle – and those are just the easy ones to spot for someone familiar with English literature.

When a doctor asks the narrator his name, he responds with the first line of a novel by Edgar Allen Poe: “My name is Arthur Gordon Pym.” When the doctor tells him that isn’t true, he tries with: “Call me … Ishmael?”

At once, Eco reveals his smarts and sly humor.

Soon, we learn that the narrator is in his 60s, is an antiquarian book dealer and goes by the nickname Yambo. Yambo is mischievous. Having forgotten his personal life, including his relationship with his wife, he calls himself a 60-year-old virgin, even though he is a father and grandfather. His character raises the expectation of a wonderful tale of memory and identity. Unfortunately, moments of wonder are all too rare.

Yambo returns to his family’s estate in the countryside in an attempt to regain his identity by going through the stuff in the attic. What he describes we see in reprinted lyrics and illustrations from posters, newspapers, comic books and magazines from the 1930s and ’40s.

The time period is fascinating: Italian fascism, war and giddy pop culture. Yambo calls the mix of messages from the media “schizophrenic.” He says, “Allied troops were landing in Sicily, and the radio (in the voice of Alida Valli!) was reminding us that love is not that way, love won’t turn to gray the way the gold fades in a woman’s hair.”

Yambo even finds an essay he wrote that praises fascism, but he doesn’t know if he was a true believer or if he had to play it safe at school. His predicament seems rich with possibility, as if Eco is suggesting that a new, multinational war (the Gulf war) is reminding Yambo’s generation how much of the past they had to forget in order to survive the horrors of war and fascism.

Some of the novel’s best writing occurs in the retelling of Yambo’s adventure with a group of partisans, but what Eco is trying to say about these themes of struggle and violence gets muddled in the abundance of pop culture. The title even refers to a comic book, and the riveting, wartime passages aren’t sustained with the same vitality as Philip Roth’s great reimagining of Newark, N.J., in “The Plot Against America” or even John Dower’s social histories of Japan in “War Without Mercy” and “Embracing Defeat.”

A 16-page section in the back of Eco’s book cites the sources for the illustrations, and a repeated phrase says that many of the images came from the “author’s collection.”

Suddenly, all the illustrations and references are indulgent. They disrupt the novel. The particulars of Yambo’s life don’t point to any general truth of the human condition, they point to Eco. As the novel progresses, this conflation of narrator and author makes one think Eco is no longer exhibiting his pleasure of language, culture and life through writing; instead, he is writing lists about things that brought him pleasure.

In the end, the “mysterious flame” that rises in Yambo’s (or is it Eco’s?) heart from seeing the pop culture of his youth has, unfortunately, left this reader feeling cold.

Perhaps it would have been more enjoyable to sort through my old books and papers.

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