three-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
18-Sept-Oct-2005
By: 
Umberto Eco
user_rating: 
0

When aging Italian antiquarian bookseller Giambattista "Yambo" Bodoni suffers an accident, he loses his memory of everything that ever mattered to him—his name and those of his wife, daughters, and friends; his possible affairs; his personal history. Strangely, Yambo recalls only the words contained in every book he’s ever read. "You’ll have to forgive me," he says to his wife. "I can’t seem to say anything that comes from the heart. I don’t have feelings, I only have memorable sayings." ("What if I mistake her for a hat?" he asks about his wife, spouting a line from Oliver Sacks’s similarly titled book on neurology.)

In attempting to resurrect his past, Yambo returns to his family’s old country home at Solara in 1991. In the hope reading will trigger his memory, he pores over artifacts of his childhood: family papers, records, children’s stories, comics, Fascist propaganda, romantic novels, and the works of Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Herman Hesse, Agatha Christie—all literature high and low. "Mysterious flames" of his childhood and adolescence slowly appear (including those triggered by one Queen Loana comic strip), but details elude him. He finds no truth, only a "maelstrom of memories that were not mine." In this emotionless existence (or "my life as an encyclopedia," he says), Yambo’s intellectual and interpersonal relationships lose shape. How can he reorder his life on a blank consciousness?
Harcourt. 469 pages. $27. ISBN: 0151011400

Critical Themes

The "paper memory": Queen Loana speaks to the ways in which we (re)constitute memory. In the quest to reclaim his mind, Yambo pores over a "paper memory" of familial artifacts. Although Eco suggests that our experiences and memories forge our identities, critics pointed out that reading alone cannot recreate memory, which "amalgamates, revises, and reshapes." Furthermore, the very act of reading remains "too autonomous to be truly helpful; it’s alive as [Yambo] is, and it won’t get out of the way" (New York Times Book Review).

Is It A postmodern exercise? In losing his memory, Yambo severs his connection with the "real" world. A few critics questioned Eco’s trademark postmodern approach, claiming that Yambo’s dependency on narrative worlds flattened the novel’s emotional core. Can narrative worlds "rebuild a grasp, a past, a continued life," asked the San Diego Union-Tribune? Or does Yambo’s life signify a mere "pastiche of a highly individualized postmodern literary history" (Rocky Mountain News)? Either way, the idea of Yambo as a truly postmodern figure will surely be "lovingly scrutinized by… graduate students of literary theory for years to come" (Washington Post).

The memorabilia: Billed as an "illustrated novel," Queen Loana contains reproductions of magazine and album covers, movie posters, fascist anthems, stamps, and Flash Gordon comics. Each produces a different memory. Some critics thought that these images, most from Eco’s personal collection, enhanced the writing and led to a dramatic "pop-cultural apocalypse" (San Diego Union-Tribune). Others believed the images gimmicky, "bold and lovely and mostly unnecessary" (New York Times Book Review). Eye candy, really.

Plain Dealer 4 of 5 Stars
"[Fans] will recognize his prose immediately and they will spot many of the author’s ongoing themes and plot devices: metaphors of fog and labyrinths and a trap door that leads the protagonist to sudden, overwhelming enlightenment. The conclusion may catch Eco neophytes off-guard, but his longtime readers know to be prepared for a resurging, swoon-inducing vision comparable to what John served up in the Book of Revelation." Zachary Lewis

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"[S]acrificing his usual magic, Eco now gives us the book with which most novelists begin—a wistful, semiautobiographical coming-of-age tale. … It’s a brave self-analysis, a whimsical form of time travel that doesn’t excuse its protagonist for his lifetime of womanizing, feelings of guilt over wartime moments, or continuing obsessions from childhood." Carlin Romano

St. Petersburg Times 4 of 5 Stars
"… unexpectedly contemporary, fun, and colorful …. [In] its more serious moments, The Mysterious Flame is concerned with the foggy distinctions between fantasy and reality, between childhood and adulthood, and, as Yambo sometimes sadly sees himself, a lifetime of reading versus a lifetime of living." Mark E. Hayes

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Those who don’t enjoy the occasional ramble through Bartlett’s Quotations may quickly lose patience with Queen Loana, but bookworms will get an added kick out of puzzling out the dozens of literary allusions. … To a certain degree, his life story shares the same shortcoming that Yambo diagnoses in himself: ‘I don’t have feelings, I only have memorable sayings.’" Yvonne Zipp

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[This] lush, jam-packed, wordy book—interlaced with scores of color reproductions of Yambo’s many found treasures—is less a novel than a travelog through one man’s brilliant, quirky, complicated psyche." Mickey Pearlman

New Statesman 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A disillusioned Eco suggests that even if the inner life of mankind is so much semi-significant gibberish, still it is life, and the alternative is no great shakes." Hugo Barnacle

San Diego Union-Tribune 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[S]emioticians, too, just want to have fun, to go along with the serious—verging at times on dry, academic—examinations of history, war, politics, and religion ..." Gordon Hauptfleisch

Rocky Mountain News 3 of 5 Stars
"[O]ne of the unexpected pleasures that we glean is a survey of some truly wonderful images from Italian popular culture of the 1930s and 1940s. … [T]his novel threatens to languish in the fog from which Yambo struggles so incessantly—and unsuccessfully—to escape." Geoffrey Bateman

Washington Post 3 of 5 Stars
"Part comic book, part scholarly dissertation and part faux-memoir, [the novel] is a work of spectacular appetites and epic confusion. … [Once] Bodoni steps into his childhood attic, the novel hyperventilates, subsumed by detailed summary of everything he finds."
Justin Cronin

NY Times Book Review 2 of 5 Stars
"The book’s appeal sometimes sags under the weight of its whimsy and the unavoidable pedantries of nostalgia. … [A] reader of Loana is never able to give Bodoni his own heart, not the way it’s gone to other heroes and heroines, from Don Quixote to Emma Bovary to the computer of Richard Powers’s Galatea 2.2, all of them fatally conditioned by what they read." Thomas Mallon

San Francisco Chronicle 1.5 of 5 Stars
"It is Eco’s great misfortune as a novelist that he is a polymath fabulist in the tradition of Swift, Voltaire, Joyce and Borges without their knack for narrative. … Indeed, the great shame of Eco’s novel is that it’s not just a straight memoir." Tamara Straus

Scotland on Sunday 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Eco seems to care more in this book about literature than about life. … Again and again, he backs away from the human possibilities of his material in favour of an intellectualised, inter-textualised brainstorm that fails in the end even to seem particularly clever." Andrew Crumey

Sunday Times [London] 2.5 of 5 Stars
"As always with Eco, there is much to admire in his all-consuming intelligence. … But it never becomes more than the sum of its parts." David Horspool

Critical Summary

Eco, known for his philosophical musings, witty allusions, historical and literary criticism, and play with the postmodern world of signs and semiotics, writes with deep intelligence in this novel of ideas. For those who haven’t memorized Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Queen Loana is, at heart, a simple detective story. Awaking from a coma, a man seeks to recover his identity (not to become a better person, as the more clichéd version might have it, but to relive the memory of Italians who lived under Mussolini).

Readers interested in literary allusions and the fine line between fantasy and reality will find Queen Loana both fun and erudite; Eco knows just as much about Fred Astaire as he does Marcel Proust. A survey of Italian pop culture of the 1930s and ‘40s, together with recollections of Piedmontese Italy and Fascism, will delight those interested in the intersection of history and literature. Yet this time Eco’s esoteric musings may have maimed the narrative. A few critics accused Eco of embracing semiotics over storytelling, of introducing narrative possibilities with no resolution, of over intellectualizing, period. Connections between Yambo’s reading and the small revelations relating to his sexual awakening, Catholic guilt, and wartime experiences fail to cohere. As a result, some reviewers saw Yambo as an abstruse, "annoying pedant" (San Francisco Chronicle). Others, noting biographical parallels between Yambo and Eco, wondered why the author chose not to write a straight memoir that came more from the heart than the brain. Despite these flaws, readers interested in following one man’s journey through his befuddled psyche will not be disappointed—as long as you’re up on your literature and pop culture.