The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco
by Robert A. Parker
This work from 2004 is a puzzling novel, a frustrating novel, a highly unusual novel. Which might be expected from a professor of semiotics, a professor whose novels are unlike that of any other current author and which range across both the centuries and multiple literary techniques.
This novel begins beautifully. Yambo Bodoni, a rare book dealer from Milan, has suffered a stroke before the novel begins and has no memory of who he is—although he remembers every piece of literature he has ever read. I was fascinated by those early pages as he slowly learns his identity, guided by his wife Paola and his family. And the narrative is enriched as he recalls snippets from his vast reading, brief lines that range across the world’s literature. But it is his self-discovery that drives this novel, and as he begins this painstaking process, one expects this novel to be about the gradual understanding of his past.
But this is Umberto Eco, and no novel of his would solve an amnesia problem in such a straightforward way. No. So Yambo journeys to Solara, a family summer home where in his bookish youth he spent many years and where he was fascinated by his grandfather’s collection of reading material. And now he seeks to recapture his youth and its memories by exploring the dusty rooms and the attic where his grandfather’s collections are still stored. Which not only expands on those previous snippets from literature but also opens wide the door on all of his literary memories.
And with this, the novel shifts gears radically. Eco not only describes the literature, comic books, songs, and journals that Yambo discovers in his grandfather’s attic, he also presents real illustrations of them to the reader, apparently from the author’s own collection. And displays them over hundreds of pages. Which is why he subtitles this work, “An Illustrated Novel.” As a result, we realize that this work is much less about our hero Yambo discovering his past and much more about Eco recapturing his own Italian past from the 1930s and 1940s. And, yes, he captures it beautifully. But it is not about Yambo, as one casual paragraph even acknowledges.
And so, as a result, as magically as Eco has recreated that era of Mussolini and World War II, I found myself skimming over these hundreds of pages, waiting for our author to move back to Yambo and his recovering memory. Which he finally does. First, describing a love affair with a girl named Lila that his boyhood friend Gianni helps him to recall. And second, describing his gradual adolescent awareness of sex and then of the death around him during those wartime years. And, finally, describing a wild adventure in which Yambo helps eight soldiers rappel down a mountainside and rejoin the local partisans.
And yet it is not quite clear how some of these memories come back in such detail. There is the implication of a second stroke, when Yambo discovers in his grandfather’s attic an original copy of the Shakespeare folio of 1623. But Eco does not clearly assign cause and effect here, as he does not do so in the entire novel. And then comes another abrupt shift by Eco, a shift to dreams. Spoiler alerts for three paragraphs.
Yambo wonders if he is dreaming all these adventures from the past, even his fascination with that Lila who disappeared from his youth. Now he wants to remember her face and cannot, despite all the detail he recalls. And to bring back that image, he beseeches Queen Loana from one of the old comic strips, an unreal person, to make his dream world real, a dream world that includes his lost love. And so the novel concludes with a parade of characters from the comic books, from past literature, and from the entertainment world, all of whom parade down a Hollywood stairway, and who are to be followed at the end by the image of Lila.
The dream world will thus be real, and Lila will be real. But, ah, we the reader have gone through so much to see this love fulfilled. Could this novel’s recreation of the past really been about just that? About a lost love.
And just as our hero is to look up and see that memorable face from the past, a fog veils his view. Indeed, fog has appeared throughout this novel, not least as a metaphor for the fog that clouds his memory. And then, in the final paragraph, the sun turns black. Is this a print metaphor for Yambo Bodoni? It certainly seems to mean that his vision of Lila will never appear. That perhaps she is the final metaphor for his blank memory.
What is Eco trying to achieve here? It is a work of memory, of the historic past, of a love unfulfilled. Indeed, the unfulfilled love of his youth, of Lila, appears intended as the unifying element. It has become a symbol of his innocent past, a past of unattainable love that he seeks to capture when he is 60 years old. And because it is unattainable, like the magical adventures from the children’s books and comic strips of his youth, he seeks that love in a dream world, a Hollywood dream world. Only to see it vanish at the moment of attainment, like a dream on waking.
I am continually intrigued by what Eco tries to accomplish in his fiction. But here I was far from intrigued, except at the opening and toward the close, with his adolescent memories in wartime that open up following the second stroke. Otherwise, like many of the reviewers, I did not find Yambo a complex enough character to identify with his desperate need to understand his past. And the other characters, whether his family or his friends, were as shallow as the comic book characters he continually refers to.
This work has been a disappointment. It creates an intellectual world rather than an emotional world. Memory belongs to the intellect. Love belongs to our emotions, and Yambo’s pursuit of love here is intellectual. As Stephanie Merritt writes in The Guardian: this novel “confirms Eco as an outstanding writer of philosophy dressed as fiction.” (March, 2016)