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The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The publication of a novel by Umberto Eco is a big thing in my universe. After all, his ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ is one of my all time favorite books. He is a master at mixing the arcane with the ordinary. So it was with a great deal of anticipation that I started reading his latest novel, ‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’. Unfortunately, the book has been a big disappointment.

The book deals mostly with the period of World War II although the main character is said to be living in the recent past. The novel is clearly autobiographical in parts as it reflects the experiences Eco underwent as a child, when he went with his mother to live in a village in the mountains of Piedmont, as well as his experiences of growing up in Fascist Italy under Mussolini.

The novel is about a Milanese old books dealer called Yambo, who loses episodic memory (the ability to recall events) due to a stroke. He wakes up in the hospital to realize that he does not remember anything about his adult life. He cannot recognize his wife, daughter or his friends. However, he finds that he has excellent recall for all the books he has read. He attempts to somehow get his memory back. With that intention he goes back to his childhood home in Solara where he discovers all the comics and records he used to read and listen to as a child during the pre-war and war years. However, he is unsuccessful in recalling anything although he does get to know through the above sources and through his old housekeeper how his life must have been during that time.

One day, in the attic of the house he unearths a sensational find, the First Folio of Shakespeare. The shock of the discovery gives him another stroke and he goes into a coma. In the coma, he begins to discover aspects of his childhood life in the region as well as his adolescent sweetheart whose name he knows but whose face he cannot recall. In the coma, using the literary characters he knows from his comic books he tries to divine her face. Does he get his memory back? Is he successful in recollecting his first big love’s face? Does he wake up? You will have to read the book to find that out but I had stopped caring by then.

The premise of the novel is interesting. The attempts of Yambo to get his memory back by surrounding himself with his childhood paraphernalia are intriguing. Up to this point you are eager to see how and if he will be able to regain his memory. But from that point on the novel degenerates into an infinitely long list of names of seemingly all the comics published in Italy (and in the Western world) during the pre-war and war eras. Mandrake, Phantom, Flash Gordon, Sandokan are some of the familiar names I recognized among a multitude of book titles, characters, villains and mysterious women.

The book has its moments, especially the instances where Yambo likens his memory loss to fog and cites various texts in which different writers talked about fog in different ways. But such moments are few and far between. The rest of the book is unfocused and rambles on from description of one obscure comic book/popular song to another interspersed with liberal sprinklings of how ordinary life was under fascist rule in Italy. The latter wherein Yambo lives through important childhood events again are the only parts of the novel that I enjoyed reading.

Perhaps my expectations had been very high as it was an ‘Eco novel’ or perhaps I could not adjust to the seemingly ‘mundane’ setting of the book compared to the fantastic and many layered plots of his earlier novels. Whatever the reason might be, at the end of the day, I just did not care for what happened to Yambo. And that, according to me, is the greatest failing of the novel. When the central character is cold and distant and you lose all concern for his life and actions you lose interest in the book as a whole. By concentrating more on the peripheral components of Yambo’s life Eco distances him from the reader and this results in Yambo coming across as wooden and aloof.

There is of course an abundant amount of intertexuality, which is a characteristic of all Eco novels. Eco quotes liberally from myriad sources and alludes to a thousand other. Trivia hunters can spend hours annotating this novel. However, in the end, it is perhaps an empty pursuit as the text itself offers no immediate pleasures.

According to some reports, apparently Umberto Eco has stated that this will be his last novel. Even though this book has been a disappointment, I hope he will change his mind and come up with a novel befitting his gift for telling fantastic tales. Tis no hyperbole, the world is a lesser place without the magic of Eco’s words to elevate it!

8 responses to “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana”

  1. Peggy says:

    This was my first Umberto Eco novel, and without reading what you have to say, it could have been my last. I didn’t “read” it , but listened to it in audio book form, narrated by George Guidall. The only reason I finished it was due to Mr. Guidall’s excellent reading. I realize I missed the illustrations, but at times the story became so tedious that I would not have finished it in the usual paper fashion. That said, I may search out other novels by Eco based on your comments. What would you recommend as your favorite of his books?

  2. Able Lawrence says:

    I do not agree.
    The structire of this novel is very different from other Eco novels. So people who appreciate the “thriller” genre in Eco will be disappointed.
    It will delight those philosophically inclined, those interested in the inner quest for identity. What am I? What is the essence of a man?
    May be it is not for everyone.

  3. Zsolt Szabo says:

    Best Eco book? Definetly the Foucault’s pendulum…

    Worst Eco book? I’ve yet to read the Baudolino from the five novels, but so far, I think Princess Loana is the worst… It’s still better than other writers’ books, but it’s not the same quality as the other ones Eco… I agree with your review! Great one!

    Oh, and a selfish comment: The one who “reads” Eco using an “audiobook” maybe shouldn’t “read” Eco at all… Stay with Dan Brown, fella…. [of course this doesn’t apply to those with seeing disabilities…]

    Anyways, still: ECO RULES!

  4. Carrie Segal says:

    Having read every Eco book I must say this book was excellent. My feelings became strongly entertwined with those of Yambo and as I eagerly read through those somewhat long & rambling sections I felt an almost frantic need to continue turning the pages, almost experiencing the same ‘Lost in the Fog’ feeling but knowing I might be able to find the end if only I could reach the right page.

  5. Gerry says:

    I quite agree with your assessment of this book’s limitations. Yambo is neithewr particularly likeable nor admirable, with the result that the reader is never fully engaged by hus quest to recapture his personal past. The most interesting aspects of the book are the satirical treatmnet of fascist propaganda and the anecdotes involving the grandfather. While the illustrations are beautiful in the edition I read they really do not contribute much to the telling of the story. In fact, they serve as a distraction — not an entirely unwelcome one — from what is often a rather tedious catalogue of books and comics from the period of Yambo’s youth. We have come to expect better things from Eco.

  6. Paula says:

    The joke is, for someone like me, for whom both the Name of the Rose, and Foucault’s pendulum were not at all intriguing, I had a somewhat different reaction. I am truly loving Queen Loana — I love how the author sort of takes you by the hand, and takes you into his childhood, showing off all his beloved books and toys. I don’t doubt the library is all his. It feels like a personal visit with the man. I especially loved the exploration of the big house at Solara and the obvious parallels with the Augustine text on memory.

  7. Greg Bryan says:

    I got this book for Christmas and recently started to read it, dreading both its size and Eco’s reputation for difficulty. I read it over the last week obsessively. Late at night, middle of the night, running home at noon.. The last two days I have deliberately slowed down, not wanting it to end. In the last section I found myself reading aloud.

    I’m not sure what grabbed me, but I can say that reading it has thoroughly enchanted me, made me want to read more of Eco, and learn more about the works and historical events alluded to in the novel.

    I’m surprised at the generally lukecold reviews. I loved it.

  8. David says:

    I found most of the book very gripping, but the last 20 pages or so (the big climax with all the characters on the staircase) were overdone, and I lost interest near the end.

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