The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco

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)

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

This 2010 novel is a difficult book to review. Captain Simone Simonini is writing a memoir about the prejudiced grandfather of his youth, and then his early adventures involving Gariboldi’s effort to unite Italy. But it is a beginning that appears mainly to establish Simonini as a ruthless man and a brilliant forger. Because the work quickly introduces a spiritual, philosophical intrigue among the Vatican, the Freemasons, and the Jews. Which converts this novel about nationalism and politics into a novel of demonization and subversion, a novel of the infighting among believers and nonbelievers, clergy and heretics, among the powerful and the manipulators and their victims. And the purpose of this intrigue? To defame the Jews.

We realize early on that Simonini is a forger and a murderer. He is also the grandson of an (historic) figure named Simonini who has imbued in his grandson a hatred of the Jews. What is intriguing at this point is that the grandson has an interesting relationship with Abbe Dalla Piccola, with whom he exchanges messages, and who remembers recent events that Simonini cannot; and vice versa, Simonini remembers things the abbot cannot. Their psychological partnership is further enhanced when Simonini recalls a long conversation he once had with a man he calls Froide.

While this opening section is being told by Simonini in his memoir; there are occasional responses to his writing by the abbot. But soon a narrator appears, as if Eco has realized he cannot advance his story in a manageable length unless he uses this narrator to condense and interpret the complicated events which we are about to read. Moreover, Simonini’s youthful adventures in Italy with Garibaldi, quite confusing to the reader who does not know that history, will soon be matched by a more complicated intrigue.

Exiled to Paris for this criminal behavior in Italy, Simonini enters the primary events of the novel. This is the intrigue among the Church (primarily the Jesuits), the Freemasons, and the Jews to discredit one another. But particularly to discredit the Jews. And because he is such a skilled forger, Simonini decides to seek a client who will pay him to forge a document that purports to expose the Jews’ plot to dominate the world by subverting its morals, its politics, and its finances. This deception is to be in the form of a transcript of a meeting by 12 Jews in the cemetery at Prague, where they plot their strategy. Simonini knows he is the perfect man to forge this document, which he begins to call his protocols, because of his grandfather’s documents and his own awareness of how novelists such as Eugene Sue and the elder Dumas have filled their work with anti-Jewish diatribes.

Gradually, the reader realizes he is reading a possible scenario of how The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was created. Which takes the edge off the continual slurs against the Jews that assassinate their character, expose their evil motives, and condemn them as a people— invective that fill this book. In fact, the protocols blame everything that is wrong with Western society on the Jews. What Eco achieves here is a daring strategy to fill this book with zealous vituperation, and yet cleverly show that these insults do not reflect the author or this book, but originate with these characters. And this is enforced when Eco reveals at the end that all the characters, except Simonini himself, are actual historic figures.

I must confess that I was lost in the complexity of this religious intrigue. Mainly because it was difficult to identify these multiple characters as they reappeared on the scene. What was their relationship to Simonini, I kept asking myself. And because they were not fully fleshed out, instead representing a specific argument, it was difficult to recall their multiple motives and the allegiances, and which aspect of the protocols plotting they stood for.

Perhaps this is because Eco’s remarkable research led him into recreating too much of this elaborate intrigue—so much that the characters exist in their relationship to the protocols plot more than they do in their relationship to one another. And Eco himself obviously recognized the difficulty in following the novel’s story, for at the end of this book he summarizes the events of each chapter. He writes: ”for the benefit of the overly meticulous reader, or one who is not so quick on the uptake, here is a table that sets out the relationship” [between the novel’s events and the telling of those events].

Eco has clearly chosen a sensitive topic here. In fact, he has taken on the most sensitive subject in the world’s cultural history, the defamation of the Jews—and shown the ruthlessness and the intrigue behind this merciless campaign. Indeed, he has illustrated how men are willing both to deceive themselves and to excuse their defense of this historic injustice.

I only wish Eco could have presented these events more clearly. That he had not chosen the elaborate combination of a memoir and a narrative—although I was grateful that he used contrasting type faces to delineate those different perspectives. And perhaps he also stuck too close to history, which prompted the introduction of such a broad range of characters. Yes, the protocols were created as a result of a complicated and interrelated series of factors. But I am not sure the verisimilitude achieved was sufficient to justify this approach to a work of literature.

To sum up, this is a remarkable story told in a remarkable way. But Eco was motivated more by history than by literature. The creation of the protocols was too complicated a story, I believe, to allow the unity required for literary art. And as a result of this complexity, the multiple characterizations suffered. What works is that this is a credible story, at the same time that it is a confusing one. And it has a strong central character, Simonini, even if a despicable one.

Rereading this novel would surely bring a closer understanding of the story, and how the various characters interrelated. But the original reading experience has not been enjoyable enough to entice me to do this. (May, 2014)