Monday, November 21, 2005

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco.
Harcourt. $27.00. 480 pages

Call me – for the sake of argument and though the memory is hazy and if I can believe what others say – Ishmael."

Doesn't quite have the same, succinct Melvillian ring we are accustomed to, but the evoked ambiguity and tentativeness gets to the heart of the matter that by turns murmurs and wildly palpitates in "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana," Italian novelist, literary critic and semiotician Umberto Eco's tantalizing new novel of ideas, identity and idolatry.

In his 1997 work centering around cognitive semantics, "Kant and the Platypus," Eco points out that even though "In 'Moby Dick' it is not expressly stated that all of the sailors aboard the Pequod have two legs," the reader, Eco avers, ought to take it as implicit – one-legged Ahab aside – given that the sailors are human. It's an assumption used by Eco to support a broader claim: "It has been said that narrative worlds are always little worlds because they do not constitute a maximal and complete state of things. ... In this sense narrative worlds are parasitical, because, if the alternative properties are not specified, we take for granted the properties that hold good in the real world."

But, to subvert the argument a little, consider a reality with properties predicated on narrative worlds, now more primary than parasitical. What if one's familiarity with the real world, with his personal past, is lost? Can narrative worlds be regarded as "maximal and complete," and used to secure a toehold on existence and to regain and rebuild a grasp, a past, a continued life?

"The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana" looks at life from this other side of the ontological and literary telescope, with a little help along the way from an encyclopedic and kaleidoscopic array of 20-century historical movements and figures, political and religious philosophy, high art and popular culture – everything from Mussolini to Josephine Baker to Ming the Merciless, Lord of Mongo, portrayals often illustrated and presented in a graphic-novel format.

Sixtysomething rare book dealer Giambattista "Yambo" Bodini awakens in a Milan hospital with a case of retrograde amnesia: He cannot remember his name, can't recognize his family or friends and is unable to recall anything about his life and career. In an intriguing twist, however, Yambo is capable of retrieving, from the merest sensations or suggestions, every scrap of every book, comic strip, magazine, movie and song he has ever experienced.

But the way the Rosebud buds or the Proustian madeleine really crumbles constitutes a "paper memory" and a frustratingly detached, isolated and emotionless existence punctuated by the randomly occurring "maelstrom of memories that were not mine." And with the realization that "I don't have feelings, I only have memorable sayings," his intellectual skills and interpersonal relations threaten to become no more substantial than table talk or sound bites.

Taking the advice of his psychologist wife, Paola, Yambo retreats to Solara, his childhood home in the country, once owned by his grandfather, also a bookseller. Perhaps by sorting through his old books, magazines, newspapers, school notebooks, comic books, letters and photographs, he can begin to make sense of a life turned every which way but lucid. Or, at the very least, maybe he can find explanations to his fixation with fog, and a captivation with the concept of a "mysterious flame," and find out why, upon becoming an adult, he had for years refused to set foot in Solara.

Indiscriminate and scattershot delving into the vast "narrative worlds" buried away in the old house has its own rewards, and seems at first a promising pursuit: "It was undeniable that there in Solara every word gave rise to another. Would I be able to climb back up that chain to the final word? What would it be? 'I'?" But Yambo underestimates the size of the project, the countless words, the treacherous climb, and realizes that there were many conflicting, seemingly irreconcilable impulses and ideas battling within and for that "I." Was he the Yambo shaped by WWII-era fascist education and propaganda, or the Yambo who had on his own immersed himself in Verne and Holmes and pulp-fiction heroes, many of whom were co-opted from American sources? Or, as evidenced by a more mature "allegory of a pointless world" he had written, was he in actuality a darker and more independent spirit? If so, Yambo surmises, "something must have happened." But what?

"The mystery of Solara" and its environs was a daunting one, where – metaphorically and, as it turns out, in an all too real sense – "at every turn I would approach a revelation, and then I would come to a stop on the edge of a cliff, the chasm invisible before me in the fog." A more systematic and eye-opening approach to unearthing an identity and a full understanding commences as a concentration on books and memorabilia gives way to real-life explorations by Yambo that center around his grandfather's anti-fascist wartime heroics, a rare antiquarian discovery and Yambo's enthrallment with an idealized lost love named Lila. Yambo comes to realize that "I am living out an adventure story that is rather more exciting than all the castle mysteries I experienced between the walls of the Solara house."

Ironically, however, the culmination of all this renewed activity and commotion of life and limb and love comes in the aftermath of a "second incident" wherein Yambo is hospitalized once again, falling into a coma – an "uninterrupted reliving of the past" – in which his memory returns. From a concluding fusion of harrowing, recounted authenticity and phantasmagoric aspiration, many riddles are solved, and we learn the full story of Yambo's own real-life rebellion, re-education and heroics that is every bit on par with the exploits of his comic and storybook idols.

Then, in an imaginative Book of Revelations-style ending that features, in text and illustration, such boyhood icons as Flash Gordon and Mandrake the Magician, Yambo prepares for a hoped-for reunion with Lila. This concluding pop-cultural apocalypse takes the fullest advantage of the dozens of marvelous period-piece color reproductions laced throughout the novel, embracing such objects as comic books, movie posters and sheet music. But beyond nostalgic appeal, such depictions serve to remind us that a wide variety of influences go into shaping one's personal history and outlook, as Yambo is quick to point out to his wife when she contends that "it is not a step forward" for Yambo to value the entertainment of pulp literature just as he does "an encyclopedia full of Homer, Manzoni, and Flaubert."

Besides, semioticians, too, just want to have fun, to go along with the serious – verging at times on dry, academic – examinations of history, war, politics and religion that are taken up in "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana." Such weighty matters were explored as well in Eco's symbol-laden medieval murder mystery "The Name of the Rose," the arcane and occultist thriller of hoaxes and world domination, "Foucault's Pendulum"; and the metaphor and paradox-rich shipwreck tale "The Island of the Day Before."

Of course, Eco is known for his contribution to the theoretical study of signs encompassing all cultural phenomena, even of the pop and pulp variety. He simply made sure this time around to give as much consideration to the memory of Astaire as he had to the legacy of Aristotle.

I realized that those days in the attic had been badly spent: I had reread pages I had first encountered at the age of six or twelve or fifteen, falling under the spells of different books at different times. That is no way to reconstruct a memory. Memory amalgamates, revises, and reshapes, no doubt, but it rarely confuses chronological distances. A person should know perfectly well whether something happened to him at seven years of age or at ten. Even I could now distinguish the day I woke up in the hospital from the day I departed for Solara, and I knew perfectly well that between one and the other some maturation had taken place, a change in my thinking, a weighing of experiences. And yet in the past three weeks I had taken everything in as if as a boy I had swallowed it down all at once, in one gulp -- no surprise that I felt dazed as if by some intoxicating brew.
So I had to give up that grande bouffe of old papers, put some things back in their places, and savor them over the course of time. Who could tell me what I had read or seen when I was eight as opposed to thirteen? I thought awhile and understood: my old schoolbooks and notebooks simply had to be somewhere among all those containers. Those were the documents to track down: I had only to listen to their lesson, letting them lead me by the hand.


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