[This unique novel is a C4 Great Read.]

Author: Umberto Eco, translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock

2005, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Filed Under: Literary, Historical.

When I reviewed Emma Donoghue’s Room, I noted that its most standout feature was the narrator who had to create his own context for the world around him, as he lacked the social upbringing most of us take for granted. I wish I had read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana before then, as Eco does something quite similar, and he’s much more successful at it.

Rather than a boy who grew up in a rape-cave, MFQL is about an old man who has lost his episodic memory due to a stroke. Giambattista Bodoni (who goes by Yambo) awakes in a Milanese hospital lacking not only his memories but his entire sense of self. His associative abilities have been crippled. He knows what a toothbrush and paste are, but not what it feels like. He does not remember his name, or know who his wife and friends are. An extremely well-read dealer of antique books, Yambo retains all his knowledge of what he’s read. But he’s lost all attachments to them. I know, I know, amnesia stories are about clichéd as they come, but Eco is a brilliant writer, and he pulls it off as if it is the freshest of ideas.

As any reader can attest, the true soul of reading and literature has little to do with remembering plots, and everything to do with how we receive and interpret the books we read in our minds. We build a relationship with the things we read, and indeed with almost all the media we consume to some degree. Yambo quickly realizes this, and determines to reclaim his identity by rereading everything he’s ever read, trying to rebuild a sense of self and reattach his memories. And so he travels from Milan to his family home in Solara, where he sets to reading in the same chairs and nooks as he did as a boy. He reads old papers and magazines, comics and adventure books for boys. He reads his old school papers, his diaries.

Slowly, a story of a life unfolds. The narration is quite wonderful, learning and piecing things together apace with the reader. The book itself is a beautiful thing, chock full of pictures. As Yambo comes across cartoon strips, cigarette ads, album covers, book illustrations, they are there for the looking. It’s fascinating to see a life put together through adverts and pulp entertainment, and seeing Yambo make connections between his history and world history, transforms the book from an interesting excercise to a work of art.

Sitting in his old family home, dangling his legs between the bannisters, Yambo pieces together not only his childhood, but the story of Italy in the first half of the twentieth century. Suddenly it is not one life but a whole nation’s worth unfolding. Only once Yambo is able to recognize this cultural identity and cultural memory can he contextualize his lost self. When his own memories ultimately appear before him (and the reader, visually), it is apparent how permanently each is fixed to the other.

It rarely occurs to us, but we are inexorably bound to our society and culture. It is as much a part of our adult selves as our genetic building blocks. One of the greatest aspects of literature is its ability to share with us something outside of us, to explore other worlds and minds. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana explores this in a wholly original and thought-provoking way. It is a smart, entertaining read, written by an author who is very talented with words. I’d recommend it for just about any reader, which is why I had no trouble naming it a Great Read.

Similar Reads: Saturday (McEwan), Television (Toussaint), Darkmans (Barker), The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis (Saramago), Room (Donoghue)