The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco is one of my favorite authors, one who has encyclopedic knowledge, and someone who is far more clever than I.  His books are so packed wtih so many references, puzzles and stories within stories that they not only can be read more than once, they pretty much have to be read more than once.  And I love them each time.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is not my favorite Eco book, but it is a very interesting and unique book.  It describes itself as an illustrated novel, which it is, and it explores different storytelling techniques.  The conceit of the book is that the narrator, Giambatista Bodoni, known as Yambo, is an antiquarian books dealer who suffers a heart attack and ends up with an unusual form of amnesia–he forgets everything he personally experienced, but remembers everything that he’s read.  He can only interact with the world through his memories of books and quotes.  His wife sends him back to his childhood home, packed with old books, records, newspapers, and comic books, to look through them and try to regain his memory.   The first half of the book is him exploring his life through these memories, the last section of the book is when he suffers a relapse and collapses, his life, told through these books, flashing before his eyes.

[Spoilers Below]
One the one hand, I was irritated by the main memory Yambo is struggling to recreate, the girl he loved from afar in high school.  This is largely because I get quite irritated by the notion of someone being in love with a beautiful girl who they have never, ever spoken to.  I find myself screaming at the book.  It’s not love, you’re just obsessed with the ideal of a girl!  You probably wouldn’t like her if you spent anytime with her and found out she acts like a person, with likes and dislikes and flaws!  It’s a pretty common trope, I know, but it drives me nuts.  And when this becomes a lifelong obsession, even while the man lives a full life with a wife whom he supposedly loves and a string of other real life women, it’s even more infuriating.

However, despite that, I did enjoy the book.  At first, I found it a bit difficult to get into, and was reading it off and on for a few months.  (Anyone who knows me knows that’s fairly unusual)  Once I started to really get into it, though, it was very enjoyable and very creative.  The book is told through a variety of mediums, with song lyrics, comics, and magazine ads, from the times Yambo is exploring sprinkled throughout.  The book no doubt is quite autobiographical, as it explores in detail what it’s like growing up in Benito Mussolini’s Italy, and the narrator muses to himself about how he, as a child, really felt in such a schizophrenic environment, whether he really wanted to be a Balilla Boy and what his feelings on the war were, hearing Italian broadcasts officially and British broadcasts on a contraband radio at home.

I loved this part of the story for two reasons.  One was that I do enjoy learning more about pop culture in past decades, not just the literature or anything academic, but what life was really like and what people were really exposed to.  The other reason is related.  This book touches on something that always fascinates me—the real life, of people who are not necessarily greatly or horribly affected, of people in awful situations.  That is going to sound odd and more voyeuristic than what I mean, so let me explain.  Accounts of great tragedy or great heroism during times of war or disaster are quite common.  I’m sure I could read many tales of people who were persecuted by Mussolini, or Italians whose lives were destroyed in Italy in WWII.  I can certainly find many tales of soldiers or concentration camps, or people fighting against them valiantly.  But a story of what life was like for the average person is much rarer and harder to come by, but what is amazing to consider is that even under the most extreme situations, there are often still people who are just going about their lives as best as they can.  And I love hearing and reading those stories and learning about what is a slice of life for someone living with fascism, or under a dictatorship, or through a civil war.  It fascinates me.

Umberto Eco almost always writes with a great irreverence and sense of the absurd.  This book is no exception, and, in fact, goes a long way towards explaining why.  I would almost posit that growing up with in the bizarre and schizophrenic situation that he did, surrounded by war propaganda that everyone knew was false and had to pretend was real, or  having to be fascistic in school and coming from a home and town sympathetic to the rebel groups, led to that sense of the absurd.  How could it be otherwise?  How can living every day in a sort of winking agreement with everyone you see that everything is a lie but we’ll pretend it’s real lead to anything else?  (see also: every post Soviet Slavic author).  It also leads to a certain amount of detachment, however, even in a somewhat autobiographical book.

This was a good read, but I would say it’s only a good read if you already are familiar with and like Eco.  It’s unique format, and unreliable narrator, might make it challenging for some, but probably an even more engaging read for others.  Both of those can be acquired tastes. And it’s not necessarily the most representative book of Eco’s, or what I’d pick as an introduction.  If having a postmodern read about growing up in Mussolini’s Italy, told through comics, songs, school essays and advertisements, sounds like your cup of tea, though, you should definitely give it a read.


2 Responses

  1. […] takes part during the tail end of Nigeria’s time as a dictatorship.  I’ve previously mentioned my interest in reading about how normal life goes on under extreme and adverse circumstances, so […]

  2. […] Slavoj Žižek—As might be evident from the fact that I write a book review blog and happily read Umberto Eco and Zeynep Tufecki, I am a huge nerd. Despite some earlier plans, though, I eventually decided a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: