It occurs to me that, with the exception of The Prague Cemetery, since I bought that when it was released, I have basically been reading Umberto Eco’s books in publication order. This is entirely unintentional, and now I only have one more to go … but on the bright side, that sounds like an excuse, after I finish that one, to wrap around and start re-reading them all, in order again!
But I don’t think I’ll be eager to return to The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. This is, by far, my least favourite Eco book I’ve read. As usual, I love the insistent intertextuality and the depth of Eco’s writing. As always, he has produced a masterpiece of literature. As sometimes happens with masterpieces of literature, however, the story itself falls flat—and, dear review reader, you know that for me, story is the ultimate drug here. With previous Eco experiences, he always managed to blow my mind while telling an intricate, fascinating tale. With this book, it’s more like he’s reflecting on a number of other tales, many of which I’m not familiar with.
Let’s get into it.
Yambo, as he styled himself before the incident, has amnesia (from a stroke, apparently). He wakes up in a hospital, is reacquainted with his wife and his profession as an antiquarian book dealer. Eventually he ends up in his family country home in Solara, where it’s hoped that spending most of the summer there will jog his lost episodic memory. Although that doesn’t seem to happen—at least not as dramatically as he might like—he does end up kind of “recreating” a generic type of childhood experience by organizing and reviewing the documents and music that he finds there. He listens to “radio” from the 1940s while poring over old comics, magazines, and newspapers, and he ponders growing up as a boy under fascism in Italy.
In one sense, it seems like this whole book exists so Eco can mention and sometimes provide commentary on various forms of pulp fiction, both imported and Italian, in the 1940s. And let me be clear: I’m here for it. I really enjoyed this exploration, because it’s fascinating, from a literary perspective. I know very little about Italy’s literature (from any period), and most of the foreign stories Eco mentions are not familiar to me either. Oh, I’m aware of Flash Gordon and Mickey Mouse (although the stuff Yambo was reading is obviously much older Mickey than I would be used to). And I’ve read The Count of Monte Cristo, which comes up from time to time in this book. Nevertheless, for the most part, I was in the dark about a lot of this—and that’s OK. I never felt like that hindered my ability to enjoy Yambo’s ramble through his past.
On another level, this rambling journey is commentary on growing up under fascism, something Eco has in common with Yambo. Our main character constantly considers how the literature he examines would be received during a time when censorship and doublespeak was rife. He thinks about how growing up around his dissident grandfather might have influenced him. And, of course, he filters everything through his antiquarian book dealer’s mindset—since these skills, unlike his autobiographical memories, have not fled him.
Many of the stories Eco features involve the struggles of heroes or rogues against fascist-like dictators. From Flash Gordon to Sandokan, Yambo remembers growing up on stories of struggle. Eco reminds us that reading a comic where Flash Gordon takes on Ming the Merciless would be a very different experience in Mussolini’s Italy than it would for me here today in Canada. (I guess this is my attempt at syncretizing New Historicism and Reader Response theory?) So from this intertextual perspective, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana has a lot I can appreciate.
Unfortunately, as far as the story goes, it’s fairly lacklustre. Certainly nothing like some of Eco’s other novels that I’ve loved. The majority of the book takes place in or around Yambo’s family summer home. Towards the end, he finally begins to relive some of the memories of his youth, which are also mostly in the same area. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll say that the last part of the book is kind of a fugue of memories and can occasionally feel incoherent. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t skim a couple of places where I was getting bogged down. When that happens, I know a book has really lost me.
Sometimes this happens with difficult books—but that’s just the thing. This is not a difficult book. I don’t think the level of philosophical depth here is anywhere near the level of The Name of the Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum. (On the other hand, please don’t interpret that remark as a charge that there is zero depth here. As mentioned above, Eco always has intensely fascinating things to say—but this book is far less inscrutable than some of his others.)
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana has long been on my to-read list in my quest to read all of Eco’s novels. I picked up this used copy from a bookstore in Montreal, so I’ll always fondly remember that. The story herein? Probably not so much.