Tuesday, March 21, 2006

book review: The Mysterious Flame

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - Umberto Eco

Deep in his heart, every literary author has an urge to write his version of Finnegans Wake. By confining its time frame to the 20th century and its scope to popular media, Umberto Eco has made his slice of Finnegans manageable. The start of the book is velvet-smooth, inviting reading that one encounters rarely. Here, Eco's protagonist, Yambo, has suffered an attack (of the heart or some other organ is unstated). Waking in the hospital, he learns he has lost all his personal memories. Intriguingly, though, he can remember everything he's read. Nearly every phrase he speaks or thinks has an echo of a quote, or a plot, a line from a song, or an aphorism.

After returning home to his family and his business of selling antique books, Yambo feels something missing in what he's re-learned about himself. It is one thing to be told facts about oneself, another thing to possess the memory, to have a sense of oneself. He travels to his family's estate, where he grew up, in search of his soul.

He encounters books, records, curious objects, postage stamps, tin containers, advertisements, a multitude of comic books, and perhaps most importantly Italian propaganda from the second World War, many of which spark memories. Their sheer volume would be overwhelming to anyone but Yambo. Ignoring his steadily increasing blood pressure, Yambo presses on past mere facts and into the realm of who he was – his soul. His reassembly of memory begins to gel on one figure, Lila, the first girl Yambo fell in love with. He seeks and finds her apocryphal, a Helen of Troy figure swirling and mixing with all the heroines and lust objects of his boyhood. The ending is frantic, crazed; Yambo's memories have overwhelmed him, and he is lost forever in their embrace.

In such an enormous assemblage of fictional characters, songs, partisan politics, and pictures, all mixed with Yambo's personal recollections, unwieldiness is a pitfall hard to avoid. Unfortunately, Eco's grace in the beginning chapters isn't sustained. And I think readers of Eco's or Yambo's age would enjoy these reminisces more. I recognized only a few percent of the references, and found myself skimming the middle of the book. Though I believe Eco means to convey that enormity to the reader, I feel that section could have been made tighter with no loss. But for all of us who, as children, secretly believed ourselves to be superheroes, the ending is quite good.

No comments: