Verbose Musing

Italy has undoubtedly gifted the world with some of the most celebrated writers who wrote some of the most timeless and most recognized works of the written text. Their works spanned different genres, from novels to poetry to short stories to drama. Italian literature is as vast as it is interesting, and covered centuries. Among the most recognized and revered titles it has produced are Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron (1349), Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532), and Dante Alighieri’s Inferno (14th century). This long tradition of producing elite writers would continue its run into the contemporary, with six Italian writers even being recognized by the Swedish Academy, awarding them the Nobel Prize in Literature, often deemed as the most prestigious, if not the highest accomplishment a writer can achieve in his or her career.

On top of these names are other equally globally-acclaimed Italian writers. Included in this long honors list are Italo Calvino, renowned for his postmodernist tale If On A Winter’s Night a Traveler; Natalia Ginzburg whose works covered family relationships and politics during and after Italy’s fascist rule and the Second World War; Cesar Pavese who is often cited as the best writer of his generation; Alberto Moravia whose works delved into the depths of modern sexuality and existentialism; and the mysterious Elena Ferrante whose works have captivated the world over despite the veracity of her physical existence. The impact and influences of Italian literature and Italian writers on world literature are far-reaching.

Another widely-recognized name in Italian literature is Umberto Eco. While he started publishing works as early as 1956, it was not until 1980 that he would publish his first full-length prose. His debut novel, Il nome della rosa, a murder mystery set in a 14th-century Italian monastery, was an instant literary sensation and three years later, in 1983, the book was made available to the anglophone world with the title The Name of the Rose. He followed up his stellar debut with an equally stunning sophomore novel, Il pendolo di Foucault (1988, Foucault’s Pendulum). This consolidated his ascension to global prominence; there was no looking back for Eco. Among his other works is The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Originally published in Italian in 2004 as La Misteriosa Fiamma della Regina Loana, the book’s English translation was released a year later.

“Mind? I wrote: love that within my mind discourses with me, the love that moves the sun and the other stars, stars hide your fires, if I were fire I would burn the world, I’ve got the world on a string, there are strings in the human heart, the heart does not take orders, who would hear me among the angels’ orders, fools rush in where angels fear to tread, tread lightly she is near, lie lightly on her, a beautiful lie, touched with the wonder of mortal beauty, wonder is the poet’s aim.”

~ Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

At the heart of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was Yambo who we first meet after he emerged from a coma, the cause of which was never mentioned. It can, however, be inferred that he suffered from a stroke that caused him to lose his episodic memory. He can remember neither his name nor his family; his memories of past events in his life were virtually erased. His only reprieve was that he was still able to keep a significant part of his semantic memory. In particular, he was able to remember all the books he has read. He also retained the knowledge he accumulated over the years. Despite his condition, he can still appraise a 17th-century work of natural history even though he was unable to remember how he was able to do it or how he was able to derive the figures. Random quotes and plotlines came back to him in trickles.

With Bodoni gaining consciousness, we learn that his complete name was Giambattista Bodoni. On the cusp of reaching his sixties, he was a Milanese antiquarian book dealer and was (happily) married. Following his discharge from the hospital, Bodoni commenced the arduous task of remembering and resuming a life that he has forgotten about. To help him rebuild his memory, Bodoni – who shares his name with a late 18th-century typographer – decided to travel to Solara, his childhood home. Situated in the Italian Piedmont, Solara was the Bodoni ancestral home and it was where the young Giambattista was raised by his paternal grandfather following the untimely demise of his parents. What ensued was a long and winding, even “disorderly” reading spree.

In his grandfather’s study and in the attic, Bodoni tried to recapture his memories of his youth and map his growth by perusing a plethora of childhood comic books, old newspapers, magazines, and notebooks. He went through old illustrated encyclopedias and the works of prominent writers such as Jules Verne, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Alexandre Dumas. Flash Gordon and Mickey Mouse were also referenced. On top of these were several works of Italian literature, some of which many might not recognize. Meanwhile, music from vinyl records permeated the air. These were relics from the past but he was hoping that with these vestiges of a life once lived Bodoni would be able to rebuild his own story. In one instance, Bodoni even concluded that “Pipino’s journey towards infancy was my own” after reading Tale of Pipino, Born an Old Man and Died a Bambino, a popular Italian novel written by Giulio Gianelli.

The vast spectrum of literary works cited in the novel was one of its finer facets; part of the book’s discourse included Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Emilio Salgari’s Sandokan series. This deep dive into the quarters of literature went beyond rebuilding the past. In a way, it was a vessel upon which Eco provided commentaries, some even scathing, about pulp fiction, regardless of its provenance. Pulp fiction was even compared to the works of Homer and Gustave Flaubert. In one instance, Eco subtly commented on the Italianization of stories: “It might have seemed odd to me that two young Italian heroes would be having adventures in a region where we had no colonies, mong Oriental pirates, villains with exotic names, and gorgeous women with even more exotic names, such as Drusilla and Burma.”

“You talk like theologians, who are all in bad faith. Like you, they say that Evil exists, but that God has given us the greatest gift in the world which is our free will. We are free to do what God tells us to do or what the devil tempts us to do, and if we end up in hell it’s just because we haven’t been created as slaves but as free men, and it just so happens we’ve used our freedom badly, which is our own doing.”

~ Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The book was riddled with images of these books and poems but it also begged the question: where did the book derive its rather eccentric title? There seemed to be no connection between the title and what was going on. That was until Bodoni would encounter a picture book among the piles of published texts he was going through. The story was about Queen Loana, the head of a mysterious African kingdom that friends Tim and Spud stumbled upon while traveling across Central Africa. Shrouded in mystery herself, Queen Loana was guarding a mysterious flame that is said to be able to grant long life, immortality even. This storyline underlined subjects and tropes that are ubiquitous in literature: romance, the search for the fountain of youth, and the stereotypical battle between good and evil.

However, the more Bodoni reads, the more his memory recedes into other quarters. Rather than regaining his pre-stroke memory, he was inevitably creating a different interpretation of his childhood, seen through the wisdom and lenses of an adult man. This, in effect, explored how memory is vulnerable to evaluation and can be molded into different shapes when reexamined. The more Bodoni skimmed through the pages of the books the younger version of him read, the more he questioned the image he has of his childhood. In a way, Eco, through Bodoni, was coaxing his readers to examine their view of the interconnectedness between the ideas encapsulated in the books that we read and our interpretations of them. It went beyond that as Eco also subtly underscored how books influence us, and the differences between experiences captured in the pages of books and experiences in the real world.

Beyond the wonders of books and storytelling and the images that accentuated the book, the story grappled with seminal and serious themes and subjects. An important part of the book was its discourses on fascism. Both Bodoni and Eco grew up witnessing an Italy that was undermined by fascist rule. Bodoni, at one point, considered how censorship has impacted his reading experience. He also considered the influence of his dissident grandfather in shaping his worldview. Eco even went as far as examining the relationship between fascism and the Ten Commandments; there were philosophical touchstones revolving around religious views and God in the story. Some of the books mentioned in the novel featured heroes or rogues who were struggling to topple fascistic rulers.

In terms of its exploration of literature and its role in our lives and society as a whole, the novel was at its brilliant best. The book’s premise was what made it distinct. However, it was also ultimately its own downfall. What propelled the story was what weighed down on it. There was no robust plotline to speak of and the story rarely veered away from Solara and its environs. The idea was promising but the execution was all over the place. Nevertheless, the heft of information and commentaries on literature embodied in the story was admirable. Unfortunately, some did little to move the story forward.

“This is how we do it in normal life to: we could suppose we have been deceived by some evil genius, but in order to be able to move forward we behave as if everything we see is real. If we let ourselves go, if we doubt that a world exists around us, we will stop acting, and within the illusion produced by the evil genius we will falll down the stairs or die of hunger. ”

~ Umberto Eco, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Despite the rebuilding of the main character’s life story and profile, Bodoni remained largely a mystery. The story was too preoccupied with stories and relics that the development of the character got waylaid along the way. Bodoni was a blank canvas at the start and remained as such for about two-thirds of the story. The novel’s digressions, especially in the middle part, plodded the story and the character’s own development. When Bodoni developed enough substance toward the latter part of the book, it was a little late. His memories were incoherent and did little to redeem the story.

A semiotician at heart, Eco was resplendent in his incorporation of allegories in his works. After all, in Eco’s literary universe, nothing is ever straightforward, nothing is what it seems. This remained true in his fifth novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. On the surface, it was the story of a man in his late fifties and his journey toward recovery and unlocking parts of his past that he has forgotten. In the process of rebuilding Bodoni’s past, the novel grappled with seminal subjects such as the vulnerability of memory, the complexities of politics and the tentacles of fascism, and the reexamination of personal history. But at its heart, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was a homage to storytelling, the influences of literature in our lives, and the books that form an essential part of our own identity.

Rating

51%

Characters (30%) – 16%
Plot (30%) – 
13%
Writing (25%) – 
15%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
7%

Umberto Eco has certainly climbed up my favorite writers’ list, especially after he blew me away with his debut novel, The Name of the Rose. However, I was a little underwhelmed with Baudolino, the first novel by the Italian writer I read. This mixed bag of reading experiences, however, has not discouraged me from reading his other works. I was always on the lookout for Eco’s books but it would take years before I finally get to obtain another one of his works. Almost half a decade after I read The Name of the Rose, I have finally read my third novel by the renowned writer and semiotician (in the same vein as Dan Brown). When I obtained a copy of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, I had a lot of things going through my mind about what the book was about. It turned out that nothing of my hunches were right. Rather, I was introduced to an aging antiquarian book dealer who was on a journey to recover parts of his memory he has lost. Fair enough, it was a basic premise. But as the book got to the middle, what seemed straightforward started to get a little confusing. Eco was drowning me with different literary commentaries. Some I appreciated but some were unnecessary. They also pushed back the initial goal of the story: for Bodoni to rebuild his memory. I did appreciate the ambition but it was also on the weight of this ambition that the story started losing the power it could have held.

Book Specs

Author: Umberto Eco
Translator (from Italian): Geoffrey Brock
Publisher: Vintage Books
Publishing Date: 2006
Number of Pages: 449
Genre: Literary, Historical

Synopsis

In this fascinating, abundant new novel from the incomparable Eco, Yambo, a rare-book dealer, has suffered a bizarre form of memory loss. He can remember every book he has ever read but nothing about his own life. In an effort to retrieve his past, he withdraws to his old family home and searches through the boxes of old newspapers, comics, records, photo albums and diaries kept in the attic. And so Yambo relives his youth: Mussolini, Catholic education, Josephine Baker, Flash Gordon, Fred Astaire. His memories run wild, and life racing before his eyes takes the form of a graphic novel Yambo struggles through the frames to capture one simple, innocent image, that of his first love.

About the Author

To learn more about the renowned Italian writer, click here.