Umberto Eco’s oddly titled The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is an acquired taste and should only be enjoyed by a literary palette that has been cleansed of judgment and is ready for a unique reading experience. This cerebral novel has been a bane on my bookshelf for several years after having originally picking it up and only getting about 50 pages in during my prior reading. I’ve been nervous to turn back to it because several reviews paint it as a painfully boring and pointless affair; however I was surprised to find that in this most recent reading it only took me about a week and half to read and I sheepishly found myself actually enjoying it. However, I am entirely aware that my enjoyment was partly due to a trepidation that I carried toward it, sort of akin to the experience of seeing a movie that reviewers have panned but you see it anyway and are able to find several redeeming qualities overlooked by the reviewers.
What is redeeming about this book is the sense of mystery that Eco portrays through the first-person narrative of Yambo, a sixty-year-old man and antique bookseller who awakes in a hospital to find he has no memory of his life but has a clear “paper memory,” able to site quotations from every book he has ever read in his life. Yambo sets out on a three part journey: first like a child experiencing life’s pleasures for the first time he becomes accustomed to his reawakened self, second he embarks on a quest to rediscover himself through the rereading of all of his childhood literature, and third he falls into a clarity of self that quickly dims into a darkness as he doubts all that he has relearned of his rediscovered life. It is a dense and thoughtful mystery that questions reality of self with respect to the impermanence of memory.
“Memory amalgamates, revises, and reshapes, no doubt, but it rarely confuses chronological distance.” (157)
The novel’s text is accompanied by nearly a hundred illustrations from book covers, comics, propaganda posters and record sleeves. The illustrations help move the pace along as Yambo refers to the many books and illustrations he reviews from his childhood. However, this is where Eco falters a little in his narration because Yambo’s extensive descriptions of the illustrations are redundant when the illustrations are side by side with the text. I believe that this is why many readers dislike the book, because there is a lot of redundancy in the decision to both discuss the illustrations textually and to include them visually. Despite this textual weakness, the inclusion of the illustrations adds to the mystery of Yambo’s journey of self-rediscovery.
The illustrations and discussion thereof also add to the historicity of the novel and I appreciated learning about WWII Fascist Italy during both the period of Alliance with Nazi Germany and later occupation by their former comrades. Yambo’s coming of age was during the war and he learns that he witnessed some difficult wartime experiences that may have been repressed during his maturity towards adulthood. The novel also mixes in a bit of spiritual discovery and later doubt as well as life-long quest of unrequited love with a supreme disappointment that very well may have led to the incident that caused Yambo to lose his memory in the first place.
I believe that Eco has crafted a beautiful piece of work in this novel and I regret having looked at is as a bane for so long.