The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana tells of an antiquarian book dealer who has suffered a stroke and lost all memory of the people in and events of hThe Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana tells of an antiquarian book dealer who has suffered a stroke and lost all memory of the people in and events of his life. At the novel's outset, the protagonist, Yambo, begins the daunting work of trying to reinsert himself into the life he has forgotten. He finds that he does not recognize his family or closest friends, but can still appraise a 17th-century work of natural history. His only sparks of memory relate to books he has read. These come back to him in snippets. Names, quotations, plotlines. Yambo laments to his wife that his memory is made of paper. In an attempt to reconnect with any memories of real people or actual events, he takes a solitary trip back to his childhood home in a rustic town called Solara. At Solara, Yambo finds more books.
The majority of The Mysterious Flame describes these books and how, poring over them at 60, Yambo imagines what he must have taken from them as a child. This central portion of The Mysterious Flame, the meat of the novel, is filled with images from the books, magazines and comics Yambo finds, which is a wonderful boon to Eco's readers in following Yambo's mental journey. Performing this task of self-rediscovery, Yambo concocts an elaborate method of reference and cross-reference to try and reclaim memories of himself at 7, at 10, at 13. For example, as he reads a comic book from his 6th grade year, he plays music that would have been current, looks at newspapers from the period to give himself context of world events at that time, tracks down his school notebooks to retrieve what he may have thought when he read this book or that.
The more Yambo reads, however, the farther his pre-stroke memory retreats. With every book he encounters, he creates a new memory of himself as a child interpreted by himself as an old man, but without actually remembering that childhood as he lived it. Is knowing what he read as a child enough to infer who he was or who he became? Yambo's struggles to connect ink on pages to the living boy he once was accentuate the edifice of memory and the extent to which we interpret and meticulously craft even a "genuine" memory. As we follow Yambo's efforts, Eco invites us to consider the connection between what we read, what we think and who we are, between lived experience and read experience, between knowledge gleaned in the world and knowledge gleaned through the written word. It brings to my mind a pet metaphor of medieval monks, which compares reading to eating. To read is to consume a whole, digest it, and to absorb its nutrients. If you are what you eat, as they say, then to the medieval scholar you are, literally, what you read. What one reads becomes one's identity insofar as it crafts one's thoughts and helps determine one's actions. This view of identity as thought does not conform neatly with current fixations on identity as deed, but as with so much from the Middle Ages, I think we benefit from entertaining such ideas and I was tickled, if not surprised, to discover them floating around in a work by Eco, a consummate medievalist by temperament if not by trade.
I will not here reveal the final issue of Yambo's labors because whether or not he recovers his memory constitutes the point of tension upon which the plot relies for its momentum. I had intended to address my single criticism of this novel, but it seems wiser now to glance over it if not swallow it completely. It pertains to Yambo's adolescent view of women, and one woman in particular, a view I found discordant with the otherwise rather acute emotional as well as academic intelligence of the character. Would a man so obsessed with the mind really carry a lifelong torch for a boyhood crush based solely on appearance? But none of us is consistent, so perhaps this is no criticism at all, and merely an observation of what I found unlikable about Eco's protagonist. When I remember reading this book and what I took from it, this will probably be a detail I will selectively omit, crafting my memory willfully, so that I recall only my enjoyment of the book, which was considerable. ...more
This book is exciting and frightening, touching and macabre. I sped through it wishing it were longer. Just a very good adventure story occurring in aThis book is exciting and frightening, touching and macabre. I sped through it wishing it were longer. Just a very good adventure story occurring in an exceedingly well-imagined nineteenth-century New England focusing on a compelling and resourceful protagonist. The prose is straightforward and driving. The plotting is clever but not overly contrived. It reminded me of Gothic romances and 100-year-old adventure stories and Margaret Atwood when she's being a little morbid. I loved every page....more
After the fifth story, I felt like I was reading the same story again and again...or at least stories that rehashed the same ideas over and over againAfter the fifth story, I felt like I was reading the same story again and again...or at least stories that rehashed the same ideas over and over again. So even while I liked the basic story template here, I didn't finish the whole book. Perhaps sometime I will. It was repetition that stopped me. I have one additional warning to modern readers - prepare for periodic but persistent racism. Written by a white European woman in the early 20th century, who purported to have extensive experience with "eastern" thought and philosophy (in quotes because she seems to mean India, but there is much much more "east"), these stories hinge on spiritual and philosophical views that would have been fairly unusual to the ears of westerners at the time - so unusual that the word "occult" winds up in the title. Anyway, the alarmingly blatant superiority complex especially typical of white people in this time period (and in so, so many others *sigh*) sneaks into otherwise interesting stories over and over again. The specifically patriarchal and condescending British view of their relationship to India in this period surely heightened this sense, even for a woman who seems to think she was writing sympathetically of Indian culture. Instead this is rather a great illustration of Said's "orientalism" at work. Interesting as sociology, I suppose. ...more