The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanaby Umberto Eco
Yambo, a sixtyish rare-book dealer who lives in Milan, has suffered a loss of memory-he can remember the plot of every book he has ever read, every line of poetry, but he no longer knows his own name, doesn't recognize his wife or his daughters, and remembers nothing about his parents or his childhood. In an effort to retrieve his past, he withdraws to the family
Yambo, a sixtyish rare-book dealer who lives in Milan, has suffered a loss of memory-he can remember the plot of every book he has ever read, every line of poetry, but he no longer knows his own name, doesn't recognize his wife or his daughters, and remembers nothing about his parents or his childhood. In an effort to retrieve his past, he withdraws to the family home somewhere in the hills between Milan and Turin. There, in the sprawling attic, he searches through boxes of old newspapers, comics, records, photo albums, and adolescent diaries. And so Yambo relives the story of his generation: Mussolini, Catholic education and guilt, Josephine Baker, Flash Gordon, Fred Astaire. His memories run wild, and the 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.
A fascinating, abundant new novel-wide-ranging, nostalgic, funny, full of heart-from the incomparable Eco.
"An insidiously witty and provocative story."Los Angeles Times
"Brilliantly written and gorgeously illustrated . . . As we accompany Yambo on his trail of self-discovery, we see Umberto Eco, one of the great minds of our era, reveal a little of his heart."Chicago Sun-Times
- Knopf Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
1. The Cruelest Month
"And what's your name?"
"Wait, it's on the tip of my tongue."
That is how it all began.
I felt as if I had awoke from a long sleep, and yet I was still suspended in a milky gray. Or else I was not awake, but dreaming. It was a strange dream, void of images, crowded with sounds. As if I could not see, but could hear voices that were telling me what I should have been seeing. And they were telling me that I could not see anything yet, only a haziness along the canals where the landscape dissolved. Bruges, I said to myself, I was in Bruges. Had I ever been to Bruges the Dead? Where fog hovers between the towers like incense dreaming? A gray city, sad as a tombstone with chrysanthemums, where mist hangs over the façades like tapestries...
My soul was wiping the streetcar windows so it could drown in the moving fog of the headlamps. Fog, my uncontaminated sister...A thick, opaque fog, which enveloped the noises and called up shapeless phantoms...Finally I came to a vast chasm and could see a colossal figure, wrapped in a shroud, its face the immaculate whiteness of snow. My name is Arthur Gordon Pym.
I was chewing fog. Phantoms were passing, brushing me, melting. Distant bulbs glimmered like will-o'-the-wisps in a graveyard...
Someone is walking by my side, noiselessly, as if in bare feet, walking without heels, without shoes, without sandals. A patch of fog grazes my cheek, a band of drunks is shouting down there, down by the ferry. The ferry? It is not me talking, it is the voices.
The fog comes on little cat feet...There was a fog that seemed to have taken the world away.
Yet every so often itwas as if I had opened my eyes and were seeing flashes. I could hear voices: "Strictly speaking, Signora, it isn't a coma....No, don't think about flat encephalograms, for heaven's sake....There's reactivity...."
Someone was aiming a light into my eyes, but after the light it was dark again. I could feel the puncture of a needle, somewhere. "You see, there's withdrawal..."
Maigret plunges into a fog so dense that he can't even see where he's stepping....The fog teems with human shapes, swarms with an intense, mysterious life. Maigret? Elementary, my dear Watson, there are ten little Indians, and the hound of the Baskervilles vanishes into the fog.
The gray vapor was gradually losing its grayness of tint, the heat of the water was extreme, and its milky hue was more evident than ever...And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us.
I heard people talking around me, wanted to shout to let them know I was there. There was a continuous drone, as though I were being devoured by celibate machines with whetted teeth. I was in the penal colony. I felt a weight on my head, as if they had slipped the iron mask onto my face. I thought I saw sky blue lights.
"There's asymmetry of the pupillary diameters."
I had fragments of thoughts, clearly I was waking up, but I could not move. If only I could stay awake. Was I sleeping again? Hours, days, centuries?
The fog was back, the voices in the fog, the voices about the fog. Seltsam, im Nebel zu wandern! What language is that? I seemed to be swimming in the sea, I felt I was near the beach but was unable to reach it. No one saw me, and the tide was carrying me away again.
Please tell me something, please touch me. I felt a hand on my forehead. Such relief. Another voice: "Signora, there are cases of patients who suddenly wake up and walk away under their own power."
Someone was disturbing me with an intermittent light, with the hum of a tuning fork. It was as if they had put a jar of mustard under my nose, then a clove of garlic. The earth has the odor of mushrooms.
Other voices, but these from within: long laments of the steam engine, priests shapeless in the fog walking single file toward San Michele in Bosco.
The sky is made of ash. Fog up the river, fog down the river, fog biting the hands of the little match girl. Chance people on the bridges to the Isle of Dogs look into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging under the brown fog...I had not thought death had undone so many. The odor of train station and soot.
Another light, softer. I seem to hear, through the fog, the sound of bagpipes starting up again on the heath.
Another long sleep, perhaps. Then a clearing, like being in a glass of water and anisette...
He was right in front of me, though I still saw him as a shadow. My head felt muddled, as if I were waking up after having drunk too much. I think I managed to murmur something weakly, as if I were in that moment beginning to talk for the first time: "Posco reposco flagito-do they take the future infinitive? Cujus regio ejus religio...is that the Peace of Augsburg or the Defenestration of Prague?" And then: "Fog too on the Apennine stretch of the Autosole Highway, between Roncobilaccio and Barberino del Mugello..."
He smiled sympathetically. "But now open your eyes all the way and try to look around. Do you know where we are?" Now I could see him better. He was wearing a white-what is it called?-coat. I looked around and was even able to move my head: the room was sober and clean, a few small pieces of pale metal furniture, and I was in bed, with a tube stuck in my arm. From the window, through the lowered blinds, came a blade of sunlight, spring on all sides shines in the air, and in the fields rejoices. I whispered: "We are...in a hospital and you...you're a doctor. Was I sick?"
"Yes, you were sick. I'll explain later. But you've regained consciousness now. That's good. I'm Dr. Gratarolo. Forgive me if I ask you some questions. How many fingers am I holding up?"
"That's a hand and those are fingers. Four of them. Are there four?"
"That's right. And what's six times six?"
"Thirty-six, of course." Thoughts were rumbling through my head, but they came as if of their own accord. "The sum off the areas of the squares...built on the two legs...is equal to the area of the square built on the hypotenuse."
"Well done. I think that's the Pythagorean theorem, but I got a C in math in high school..."
"Pythagoras of Samos. Euclid's elements. The desperate loneliness of parallel lines that never meet."
"Your memory seems to be in excellent condition. And by the way, what's your name?"
That is where I hesitated. And yet I did have it on the tip of my tongue. After a moment I offered the most obvious reply.
"My name is Arthur Gordon Pym."
"That isn't your name."
Of course, Pym was someone else. He did not come back again. I tried to come to terms with the doctor.
"Your name is not Ishmael. Try harder."
A word. Like running into a wall. Saying Euclid or Ishmael was easy, like saying Jack and Jill went up a hill. Saying who I was, on the other hand, was like turning around and finding that wall. No, not a wall; I tried to explain. "It doesn't feel like something solid, it's like walking through fog."
"What's the fog like?" he asked.
"The fog on the bristling hills climbs drizzling up the sky, and down below the mistral howls and whitens the sea...What's the fog like?"
"You put me at a disadvantage-I'm only a doctor. And besides, this is April, I can't show you any fog. Today's the twenty-fifth of April."
April is the cruelest month."
"I'm not very well read, but I think that's a quotation. You could say that today's the Day of Liberation. Do you know what year this is?"
"It's definitely after the discovery of America..."
"You don't remember a date, any kind of date, before...your reawakening?"
"Any date? Nineteen hundred and forty-five, end of World War Two."
"Not close enough. No, today is the twenty-fifth of April, 1991. You were born, I believe, at the end of 1931, all of which means you're pushing sixty."
"Fifty-nine and a half. Not even."
"Your calculative faculties are in excellent shape. But you have had, how shall I say, an incident. You've come through it alive, and I congratulate you on that. But clearly something is still wrong. A slight case of retrograde amnesia. Not to worry, they sometimes don't last long. But please be so kind as to answer a few more questions. Are you married?"
"You tell me."
"Yes, you're married, to an extremely likable lady named Paola, who has been by your side night and day. Just yesterday evening I insisted she go home, otherwise she would have collapsed. Now that you're awake, I'll call her. But I'll have to prepare her, and before that we need to do a few more tests."
"What if I mistake her for a hat?"
"There was a man who mistook his wife for a hat."
"Oh, the Sacks book. A classic case. I see you're up on your reading. But you don't have his problem, otherwise you'd have already mistaken me for a stove. Don't worry, you may not recognize her, but you won't mistake her for a hat. But back to you. Now then, your name is Giambattista Bodoni. Does that tell you anything?"
Now my memory was soaring like a glider among mountains and valleys, toward a limitless horizon. "Giambattista Bodoni was a famous typographer. But I'm sure that's not me. I could as easily be Napoleon as Bodoni."
"Why did you say Napoleon?"
"Because Bodoni was from the Napoleonic era, more or less. Napoleon Bonaparte, born in Corsica, first consul, marries Josephine, becomes emperor, conquers half of Europe, loses at Waterloo, dies on St. Helena, May 5, 1821, he was as if unmoving."
"I'll have to bring my encyclopedia next time, but from what I remember, your memory is good. Except you don't remember who you are."
"Is that serious?"
"To be honest, it's not so good. But you aren't the first person something like this has happened to, and we'll get through it."
© 2004 RCS Libri S.p.A.
English translation copyright © 2005 by Geoffrey Brock
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
UMBERTO ECO (1932–2016) was the author of numerous essay collections and seven novels, including The Name of the Rose,The Prague Cemetery, and Inventing the Enemy. He received Italy's highest literary award, the Premio Strega, was named a Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur by the French government, and was an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
GEOFFREY BROCK is an award-winning American poet and translator. His first book of poems, Weighing Light, received the New Criterion Poetry Prize in 2005. His awards include a Wallace Stegner fellowship from Stanford University, a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Guggenheim fellowship, and a Cullman Center fellowship from the New York Public Library. He is also a leading translator of Italian poetry and prose, having brought into English major works by Cesare Pavese, Umberto Eco, Roberto Calasso, and others.
- Bologna, Italy
- Date of Birth:
- January 5, 1932
- Date of Death:
- February 19, 2016
- Place of Birth:
- Alessandria, Italy
- Ph.D., University of Turin, 1954
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