The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loanaby Umberto Eco
Yambo, a sixtyish rare-book dealer 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… See more details below
Yambo, a sixtyish rare-book dealer 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 graphical novel. Yambo struggles through the frames to capture one simple, innocent image: that of his first love.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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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.
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I picked this one up with the warning of my friend's experience in mind, that being that he had a difficult time getting past all of Mr. Eco's esoteric references to various pieces of fiction and former pop-culture ephemera. True, those references are there, but what emerges on the surface is a mystery story wherein the detective is also the murder AND the victim. In all, an incredible story, very well put together, though I would contend that it got a bit too preachy toward the end. Those words might have better served in a psychology, or new age text on memory, though again, the illustrations were a joy in themselves, and I enjoy looking back at them even though I have finished the book. I won't argue that it's a classic, nor that if you are a very busy person that it is necessarily worth your time, but you could do worse. Unfortunately, I haven't read any of Mr. Eco's other books, so I am unable to say whether this one holds true to some vein of greatness he might have tapped into, but I'm not turned off on reading his others if that can be construed as any sort of reccomendation.
Eco must have challenged himself to see how many lists he could include in one book and how long he could make that book before the reader gives ups and quits. I didn't give up because I kept hoping there would be some wonderful reason for all the hours spent by the author in writing and by me reading. I admit the author is talented/gifted but still I was disappointed.
Imagine waking up and not remembering your life. Admittedly, this is something that I worry about all the time so I was intrigued when I read the back cover of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and found it to be the premise of the novel. The main character, Yambo, finds himself unable to remember anything about his life and attempts to piece together his past - a mystery of sorts. Throughout the novel, the reader is treated to an endless barrage of list upon list of songs, cartoon characters, magazines, books, works of art, etc.. I found this to be quite exasperating; however, I did finish the book. Why? I was hoping the book would become more interesting and I wanted to know what happened to Yambo. Mr. Eco was able to create a likable character floundering in a sea of minutiae. Sadly, this book was not for me; however, I will give Mr. Eco another read. I recommend his book for those that are nostalgic about Italian culture during World War II, the influence of propaganda, and interested in psychology.
This has got to be the greatest novel from our worlds greatest living writer right now. I loved this novel so much. It was so much funner than his last novel, Baudolino. Where Baudolino bogged you down with questions of faith and playing with legends of the 13th century, where most readers of today would be overwhelmed unless you were a history buff. However MFoQL retells somewhat the same story Eco shares, but this time around chooses the 20th century to retell his tale. This is a great form of meta-fiction. Where you had Borges in the forties making up fictions with fictions that already existed, well Eco is doing the same thing here. Eco has got the fictions of the thirties and forties, comics nonetheless, and recreates them in the last fifty pages or so to recreate a story of his own life. This is great fiction or meta-fiction. I really like Eco's style. This book I read in a matter of days. Once I started I could not stop becuase I wanted to know what the narrator was going to come up with next. The allusions that fill this novel are so ingenius that I found myself laughing out loud several times. And Ecos knack to retell the story of other lesser known books in his one big book is so great. So it was wonderful when he writes about Huysmans novel and retells it, or even when he speaks of Cyrano by Rostand, why, Eco was so good, he made me go out and want to read Cyrano on my own. And the way he brings in Italian history was so wonderful. I did not really know much of Italy in the second world war, but after reading this novel, I knew more than what I was taught in an American high school history course. This is a novel for those that want something different than what is being sold in the bookstores today. It is more accesible than Baudolino, about as fun as name of the rose when it comes to the old manuscripts Eco writes about, (though not as fun as Aristotle's lost book), and even has hints of Foucaults Pendulum when he mentions that he does not know if he just made all this up, that what if life was just a dream and he dreamt up Dante and world war II. A very good summer read from one of the greatest writers in the world, a good book to read first if you have never read any of his books. This is a great introduction to lead any reader to discover his other great labyrinths of the fictitious world.
The reason for which this is my favorite of Umberto Eco's books is that, even being a non-Italian, I grew up in the Naples mansion of my grandfather, before I brushed up my Italian with BBC's accounts of WWII. I had therefore at hand the best tools for handling this delicious, although deeply thought, masterpiece. Everybody knows the subject, so I'll stick up to a few details. The first two sections of the book are hilarious and most entertaining, but in order to 'place himself into orbit', Eco is using one of the best known comics of Lyman Young, who died in 1994 at the age of 101... LA MISTERIOSA FIAMMA DELLA REGINA LOANA is nothing else than an adventure of Tim Tyler and Spud in Africa, where somebody tells them the story of that queen. But for the moviegoers, Loana is nothing else than SHE, a.k.a. known as SHE, AYESHA and HASH-A-MO-TEP... It was invented in 1887 by one of the masters of Victorian fantasies, H. Rider Haggard, and was brought to the screen several times. The second one, in 1935, starring Helen Gahagan and Randolph Scott, mesmerized me during long, long nights ... If you haven't read it (which I doubt, Henry Miller already classified it as one of 'the books in my life'), do so. However, this is not exactly my point, and, please don't read me wrong, I do not blame Eco for any offence to Haggard's copyrights. After all, he's not quoting Haggard, but Lyman Young, while his interest is in the 'flame', which kept Ayesha young and beautiful for 22 centuries. Enough to focus his interest in the life-beyond-it, as already attempted by Bob Fosse, in his 1978 masterpiece, ALL THAT JAZZ. Incidentally, Sandahl Bergman, starring in ALL THAT JAZZ, portrayed Ayesha in the 1985 version of the movies. The last of them, in 2001, is considered the worst movie of all times, including PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE... Umberto Eco's book really gives another chance to the myth of finding 'what's beyond the final point'... Harry Carasso, Paris, France
I had heard so much hype about Umberto Eco, that I feel a bit disappointed with this book. Clearly it was good enough to finish. You will notice that most of the reviews I do are decent to good reviews, the reason being, if a book is bad, likely I won¿t waste my time on it and therefore it tends not to get reviewed. It would be unfair or me to do a review on a book I never finished. I finished this one, and by no means do I wish to say this was a bad book, but it certainly was less than I was expecting.
The premise is simple. A man wakes up one day, with absolutely no memory of his past, but strangely enough he seems to be able to recall everything he has ever read in his life. It is using these bits of information that he makes an attempt at piecing his past back together.
The approach is formidable, in my mind and the author certainly has the weapons to put it to action, but in the end the book still felt a bit longer than it needed to be. While it starts and finishes strong, the body of it at the center does feel like it drags, pulling out literary reference after literary reference, which can get tedious. On the other side, it does provide a good venue to get a glimpse of Italian (mostly, as the book is set in Italy) literature around the time of World War II and how propaganda seemed to touch all things printed.
Mixed, the good with the bad, I still think this book is worth it and the fact that it has pictures helps it move along a bit nicely.
An older book dealer suddenly and unexpectedly holds in his hands Shakespeare's first folio from 1623 and the shock of the discovery triggers a coma from which the narrator is attempting to recover his memory and re-discover himself. It's an intriguing premise as the book dealer revisits an attic to dig through boxes of his old books to learn what light they can shed on his remembrance of lost time. The books, dating from his childhood, trigger memories of life in Fascist Italy, as he re-learns who he is by what he has already read, including children's tales, religious works, advertising, comic books, paperback novels and war propoganda. I admire the intelligence of Eco, a scholar whose style is fluid, clear, articulate, erudite and engaging. I also admire the translation of the novel, which reads beautifully and flows naturally. This novel seems self-indulgent in places and has a great many cultural and historical references, which will elude readers outside Italy. Of all the works referenced in this novel, there didn't seem to be enough of the real masterpieces here. Perhaps, that's the tragedy that any reader may risk by overcommitting to reading time squandered upon the works of lesser literary lights. By the way, this novel is masterfully illustrated by the publisher. I was intrigued by Eco and am well into Foucault's Pendulum, which is more impressive for the wit and sheer intellectual luminosity of the writing but that's another story for another day. I may well end up giving Eco's list a run for its money, if the rest of his work is as good as these two very fine but not quite great novels. Time spent reading Eco clearly is time well spent.
This is Eco's best work. It was thoroughly engaging and enjoyable. A real page turner.