The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is the latest novel by the Italian semiotician and essayist Umberto Eco. Whenever confronted by a new work of fiction by Eco, you can count on two things-- an erudite discussion on some aspect of culture and history and a storyline that that will leave you riveted.
The plot of the book is deceptively simple. Yambo, and elderly book dealer awakes from a post-stroke coma to realize that he remembers nothing of his life-his past, his family, and his passions—but can remember every line of every book he has read. Yambo, with the help of his wife, beautiful and smart assistant, best friend, and the woman who cares for his ancestral house, tries to untangle the mystery of his life by looking at the books he has read and then relating them to the anecdotes the others tell him of his life.
What Eco presents in this novel is a discussion on the meaning of identity. As a book person, I know how personal my choices of reading have been. So much of life, especially for someone whose stock and trade are books and words, is tied to what we have read. But that picture is incomplete. We are more than what our intellects devour; to those books are alloyed the people and the tangle of emotions that populate the world outside our reading chairs.
As Yambo searches his books for some clue to his past, he discovers his childhood involvement in the resistance to the fascists, his relationship to his grandfather, and most importantly, his Dante-like idealized love of the girl, Lila. What bothers him most about his condition is that while he can reconstruct the events of his life and even his love of Lila, he cannot see her face.
In the end, Yambo succumbs to another stroke after finding the one book that is the Holy Grail of antiquarian book lovers, a First Folio of Shakespeare. The episode triggers further latent memories, but the one that most eludes him, Lila’s face, is denied. Whether the ending of the Name of the Rose, Eco’s first novel, was intentionally inverted, I suppose is up to debate. Adso of Melk, the narrator of that novel loses a library, but retains his memory.
Who we are and what is important to us in our personal lives is more important than who we are in our intellectual lives. Hopefully, we didn’t need Eco to remind us of that. That being said, however, Eco does make us examine the relationship between the two. Eco’s novels are filled with literate people, living literate lives. In this, The Mysterious Flame is nothing new. But the human quest of deciphering one’s own past is a quest we must all confront at some point in our lives. Doing so through our libraries must prove inadequate.