We are each the star of our own story, and sometimes, Umberto Eco suggests, the tenor and direction of that unfolding drama are shaped by...
“The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana”
by Umberto Eco, translated by Geoffrey Brock
Harcourt, 469 pp., $27
We are each the star of our own story, and sometimes, Umberto Eco suggests, the tenor and direction of that unfolding drama are shaped by childhood experiences we scarcely recall. In “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,” which addresses everything from belief in God to the young awakening of sexual desire, Italian writer Eco pays tribute to the power of hidden memories.
Best known in this country as the author of “The Name of the Rose” and other acclaimed novels, Eco also is professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna. His study of signs and symbols as elements of communicative behavior is at the heart of “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.” The inclusion of song lyrics, movie stills, magazine covers, the colorful pages of comic books and historic photographs that include a bare-breasted Josephine Baker lend Eco’s novel the flavor of an illustrated history of Italian popular culture in the mid-20th century.
The story is set in the summer of 1991, before names and events could be readily researched with Internet search engines. A sixtyish antiquarian book dealer nicknamed Yambo awakens from a stroke that has erased his memory so completely, he scarcely can remember how to brush his teeth. A flotsam of literary quotations surfaces in his mind, but he has no idea of their source, let alone their relevance. His wife, when reintroduced to him, sends him out for a walk in the hope that familiar places will jog his memory. She asks him to buy roses. He returns with a 19th-century cylindrical container of dog testicles.
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Yambo travels to his grandfather’s house in the hills between Milan and Turin, where he spent much of his childhood. Being there, his wife suggests, might invoke memories of his school years. Long deserted but for an elderly housekeeper, the country house has an attic full of family pictures, stacks of books and papers — even Yambo’s old schoolwork and notebooks. He attempts to retrace, year by year, the formation of his consciousness through the songs he used to hear and the adventure stories he devoured.
He finds old copies of illustrated children’s weeklies that speak of Fascist glories and fantasy worlds inhabited by fairy-tale characters without distinguishing one from the other. Yambo concludes that it was probably through the comics that he had, as a child, constructed a social conscience. “Mickey Mouse Runs His Own Newspaper” introduced him to the idea of a free press, capable of resisting censorship.
In a walled-off room he discovers the most intimate evidence of his childhood — “poems so bad they could have been no one’s but mine” — as well as insights into his grandfather’s dramatic political history.
When he finds an illustrated book titled “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,” he feels himself on the cusp of some final revelation. As an adult, he finds the story “the most insipid tale ever conceived by the human brain.” The narrative is slipshod, and Queen Loana is a capricious little fashion plate who reminds Yambo of certain parodies on early television variety shows. Yet the title itself exercises an inexplicable hold on his memory. “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,” he realizes.
The mysterious flame is linked in his consciousness with the memory of his first young love, Lila Saba. Although he cannot now recall her face, he dredges up memories of an experience so profound he could not express it, much less speak to the girl who stirred in him that mysterious flame. The memory of her is related to the piece of news that so shook him, it sent him into a life-threatening stroke.
Ultimately, all of his memories, fact and fiction, conflate into a vision that is a riff on the Book of Revelation, with himself at its center, and Flash Gordon, Fred Astaire, Ming the Merciless and Mandrake the Magician as co-stars. Memories, he seems to say, are made of this.