A review of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The relationship between the opening of the novel and the ending of it are interwoven powerfully. The theme of what makes a person unique, the relationship between human identity, language, the cultural versus the personal memory, and even the relationship between life and death may all be evocative enough to carry the plot through the murky waters of the novel’s middle.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
By Umberto Eco
Secker & Warburg
Hardcover (illustrated): 480 pages
June 2005, ISBN: 0436205637, $A55.00

Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, opens with an evocative premise. Fifty nine year old Giambattista Boldoni, known to his friends as Yambo, wakes up in the hospital “suspended in milky grey.” He’s had a stroke, and once he breaks through the film of unconsciousness, he realises that he has lost all personal memory. What’s he’s retained, and strongly, is his memory of every cultural icon or book; every historical event; in short, every fact he’s learned. What he’s lost are those things that pertain personally to him. His family seem to be strangers, and even his sensory memories–the feel of fabrics, the scent of flowers, the sensation of tooth brushing is gone, and every nuance of what constitutes the self of Yambo has to be re-experienced. This sets the novel up for a searching investigation of what it means to be alive, and the nature of human identity in a way which is much more vivid and intense than a philosophical argument, although if anyone is capable of working through the philosophical issue it’s Eco. However, the tension between the philosophical argument underlining the book and the inner imperative of the fiction is one which I’m not sure that Eco resolves in a satisfactory way.

The book is divided into two halves, and the first part is driven forward by Yambo’s search for his lost self. Yambo has all the facts. He knows he is a very successful rare book dealer with an attractive assistant, and he knows that his intelligent and accommodating wife Paola loves him, as do his children and grandchildren, but there’s no connection beyond the immediate:

I said I was feeling weak and wanted to sleep. They left, and I cried. Tears are salty. So, I still had feelings Yes, but made fresh daily. Whatever feelings I once had were no longer mine. I wondered whether I had ever been religious; it was clear, whatever the answer, that I had lost my soul. (21)

Yambo has retained is his extensive memory of the texts he has come across or read and is able to recall these texts effortlessly. He is a virtual catalogue of everything he has read, and his ability to cross reference and quote is extensive, and bound to exceed the general literary knowledge of most readers. Watching Yambo try to connect the self that he is experiencing in the present tense with the broader textual knowledge that he has retained is dramatic and touching. The book becomes an almost multimedia experience with illustrations that include a range of clippings, book covers, comic books, magazines, stamps, and book plates. The images are beautifully coloured, and generally centred around the 1930s and 40s, mainly popular texts of the sort that young Yambo collected. For readers of a similar era to Yambo, the illustrations will no doubt conjure their own associations and memories, further parallelling the way in which Yambo desperately searches for his identity, which remains illusive. Instead of the real Yambo, the textual references recall the collective but random and impersonal memory produced by the Internet:

I said to myself: Yambo, your memory is made of paper. Not of neurons, but of pages. Maybe some day someone will invent an electronic ctraption allowing people to travel by computer among all the pages eer written, from the beginning of the world till today, and to pass from one another with the touch of a finger, without knowing any longer where or who they are, and then everyone will be like you. (88)

The passages between Yambo and his wife Paolo seem unrealistic, as if they were taking place in a lecture room. The interchanges between them are too cold, too dry, and too analytical for the kind of relationship that must have developed between these two characters. Paola’s own way of looking at life, and working through the tragedy which has confronted them is almost identical to Yambo’s, and the reader never gets a sense of her, or of Yambo’s children. Paola sends Yambo back to his childhood country home in Solara–a place he refused to visit before the stroke–to see if memory could be reignited there by old associations and sensations. Encouraged by a caring and long serving family servant Amalia, Yambo spends most of his time in Solara sifting through his own and his grandfather’s books, in an attempt to find the clue which will ignite the flame of recognition. It is this flame that takes Yambo into dangerous territory as he begins to uncover a mystery about a lost love, and the effect that that had on the identity he has lost:

You read any old story as a child, and you cultivate it in your memory, transform it, exalt it, sometimes elevating the blandest thing to the status of myth. If effect, what seemed to have fertilized my slumbering memory was not the story itself, but the title. The expression the mysterious flame had bewitched me, to say nothing of Loana’s mellifluous name…Having forgotten the “historical” Loana, I had continued to pursue the oral aura of other mysterious flames. And years later, my memory in shambles, I had reactivated the flame’s name to signal the reverberation of forgotten delights. (253)

Themes of ‘fog,’ and nostalgia are strong throughout the first part, as is the mystery of the Quixotic like unrequited love of Yambo’s youth, and these are handled well, with a deft balance between Yambo‘s introspection and the literary quotations he uses to express his feelings. What isn’t handled so well is the heavy handedness with referencing. It is clear that Eco has become enamoured of his own research material, and loathe to cut the lengthy, dry, and overly detailed recounting of stories from the materials found at Solara. I expect that a writer of smaller status may have been subjected to an editor’s pen, unfortunately the long passages of quotations and paraphrases which have little bearing on Yambo’s character other than he would have read and enjoyed these materials, detracts from the story. One could imagine a labyrinthine trip, between history and psychology as we uncover tiny clues about Yambo’s character through his materials, but there is so much time spent on recounting comics like Topolino or Micky Mouse, Dick Tracey, Il Vittorioso (who “lacked the courage to cut the series short.“ an apt phrase at this point), World War Two headlines and propaganda material like Balilla, the weekly for the Italian Fascist Youth, full texts of songs, school readers, and so on, that the thread of Yambo is lost. One could almost imagine that Eco had some half worked material in this area which he had no place else to use, since it seems out of place, and too much like a diversion in the history of common culture during that period than an exploration of the impacts on Yambo’s character. It doesn’t really work, which is a shame, because, with a lighter hand and greater emphasis on the character of Yambo, this section could have been powerful. Certainly the quality of the writing is as strong as any that Eco has done, but the slippage of plot, and characterisation is just too great at this juncture. There are opportunities for development in the relationship between Yambo and his old friend Gianni, or for the impact of Yambo’s stroke on his wife Paola, but it seems that the philosophical premise has taken priority over the fictional reality, and the reader is the loser.

As Yambo’s excitement begins to increase dangerously and he gets closer to the flame he is searching for, the story once again becomes compelling. The sensual world has returned to Yambo as he experiences a tremor of recognition on discovering, in a rather unlikely twist, Shakespeare‘s First Folio:

With this first folio I am living out an adventure story that is rather more exciting than all the castle mysteries I experienced between the walls of the Solara house, during nearly three months of high blood pressure. Excitement is muddling my thoughts, my face is blazing with heat. (298)

Again, as with the opening, the premise for the second part of the story is very good indeed, and further deepens the philosophical questions which are raised. The movement between fog and light are handled deftly and are quite beautiful:

I am travelling through a tunnel with phosphorescent walls. I am rushing towards a distant point that appears as an inviting grey…I am nearing the mouth of th etunnel, and the vapours that gather thickly beyond it are filtering in. I simmer in them, barely aware that I am now moving through a delicate tissue of hovering fumes. This is fog: not read, not described by others–real fog, and I am in it. (301)

The reader is made to feel privy to what might otherwise be lost. Eco handles this part of the story much better than the middle section, and although the cultural references are still present, they are much lighter and more directly engaged with character. There is also a strong thread of melancholy and irony which underlines this second part of the book. This is a critical part of the theme–we only understand the meaning of our lives in death. The reader feels Yambo’s limbo, and understands his imprisonment. Again, it would have been valuable to have more of Paola, who remains a shadowy and undeveloped character, and perhaps the rest of his family. His obsession with that moment of infatuation seems rather overwhelming for the maturity and intensity of a whole lifetime. Nevertheless, the philosophical problems raised in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, and the beautiful passages of what sometimes is pure poetry, may be enough to recommend the book. The relationship between the opening of the novel and the ending of it are interwoven powerfully. The theme of what makes a person unique, the relationship between human identity, language, the cultural versus the personal memory, and even the relationship between life and death may all be evocative enough to carry the plot through the murky waters of the novel’s middle.