Review

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

by Umberto Eco



Memory is a tricky thing. It is real and essential to the one
remembering, but subjective and often unreliable. Scientists still
do not understand exactly how memory works or why things like scent
can send us reeling back years, decades or indeed a lifetime. For
many, amnesia --- living without long- or short-term memory ---
seems a horrific fate and we instinctively know that without
memory, much of the "I," the distinctiveness of the individual, is
lost.

Giambattista Bodoni, a rare bookseller in his 60s, has lost his
memory. Yambo, as he is known to most, awakens in the hospital to
learn that he has a wife, two daughters, three grandchildren and a
thriving business, only he cannot remember any of it. Eventually
his wife, Paola, suggests he return to his childhood home in
Solaro, a virtually deserted estate in the country, to try to
recapture his elusive memory. Thus begins Umberto Eco's latest
novel, THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA.

In actuality, Yambo has not lost his entire memory; he has lost his
autobiographical memory. He can recall facts that are widely known,
ideas widely held, but he cannot remember his own parents. In
Solaro he finds room upon room of boxed-up books, records,
newspapers, comic books, school notebooks and more, and this is
where he turns to begin to piece together his memory, his life. The
house is a time capsule, perfectly preserving all the printed
ephemera of his childhood in war-torn, fascist Italy. He decides
that he was influenced almost equally by fascist propaganda,
popular culture --- both Italian and imported --- and the Catholic
Church.

Yambo spends his time in Solaro reading the contents of box after
box hoping to find the item, the quote, the image that will jog his
memory and give him his personal life back. He is not quite
successful but does succeed, however, in giving readers a literary
tour of Italy in the 1940s and 1950s: song lyrics, comic book
plots, obscure and obvious literary references, and more spill from
Eco's pen easily. Still, as deft as Eco is with this interesting
idea, the story bogs down in the middle, becoming a catalogue of
various bits of information that never add up to a cohesive whole
--- although that may, in fact, be the point. Yambo, in some ways,
is a sum of all these parts, but none of it can clearly give him
his identity.

Yambo's memory does return but not the way he was hoping. And with
the flood of memory comes other problems --- the control and
categorization of memories and their associations. Readers learn
with Yambo about the figures who populate his childhood and
formative years in Solaro. Most interesting are his brave and
free-thinking grandfather, Gragnola, the anarchist who meets a
tragic and heroic fate, and Lila Saba, the beautiful and
unattainable girl by whom Yambo measures all other women. The
incident involving Gragnola would seem to merit more consideration
as it is one of the most interesting moments in the novel, but in
fact it is the memory of Lila that Yambo's mind races after; her
face, the grail, he seeks. We leave Yambo yearning still for the
memory of Lila's face, something always just out of mental
reach.

Eco has been accused of being an arrogant writer, full of difficult
allusions and contrived postmodern theories, but his books are not
typically dull. THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA may be the
exception. It is perhaps more readable, from an intellectual
standpoint, than a book like FOUCAULT'S PENDULUM, but, despite the
interesting theme of memory and identity and the idea of the value
of popular culture as a window to a culture or era, this novel
tends toward the boring in the middle. Marketed as an illustrated
novel, the images contained in the book are, like the references
Yambo discovers in his childhood home, sometimes interesting but
often the reader senses that they are only relevant to Eco himself
within the context of his own life and experiences.

In the end, those who will most appreciate QUEEN LOANA are diehard
Eco fans and those interested specifically in either the pursuit of
"memory" or the popular culture of fascist Italy.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on January 12, 2011

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
by Umberto Eco

  • Publication Date: June 3, 2005
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • ISBN-10: 0151011400
  • ISBN-13: 9780151011407