Book Review: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2005)

Umberto Eco is one of those authors who frustrates me. I truly enjoyed The Name of the Rose and 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, but part of me wishes I had.

The book tells the tale of Yambo, a Milan rare book dealer in his 60s, who 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 detail of or event in his life. In fact, he cannot even place any of his vivid literary recollection in the context of his own life. As a result, all his memory and knowledge lack emotion and nuance.

The first part of the book deals with Yambo’s awakening from his coma and his initial attempts to return to normality. He finds, though, that relying on friends and family for his past means he is just learning their memories, not recovering his own. Thus, in the second 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 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.

What we and Yambo discover, though, is that he is not reliving his childhood but that of his generation. And that is perhaps the biggest problem with the book. Originally published in Italy last year, we are reliving 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 in and intrigued by Yambo’s search. He does, however, overplay 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 third and 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 review of 20th Century Italian history an enjoyable sojourn. Yet I found Eco’s thought-provoking exploration of the former ultimately overwhelmed by his review of his adolescence.

I can’t seem to say anything that comes from the heart. I don’t have feelings, I only have memorable sayings.

Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

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