Sara's Reviews > The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco
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's review
Aug 22, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: mystery, umberto-eco, 21st-century-fiction
Read in August, 2008

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 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.
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02/26 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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Sonia Gomes Sara your review of the book is brilliant !

Sara Sonia wrote: "Sara your review of the book is brilliant !"

Took me long enough to see your comment, Sonia. Thanks very much!

Bettie☯ I am with Sonia - brilliant review with one caveat, the torch thing was lovely but then I can be a bit of a romantic at times.


Amaan Ahmad I gave it 1 but your review is good. I couldn't find a thing amusing in the book. It's a piece of crap.

Frances Sawaya Stunned by A's comment, "a piece of crap." Curious to know why. I am about 1/4 into it and find it compelling. Great review, Sara

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