Thursday, 27 November 2014

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco, translated by Geoffrey Brock

Reviewer: JJ Marsh

What we thought: Yambo (Giambattista Bodoni) of Milan is a husband, father and antique book dealer. He wakes up in hospital without his memory. Well, most of it. He can remember every book he ever read, but doesn’t recognise his wife or children. He must piece together who he is from anecdotes, relationships, assumptions and by revisiting his books.

This is a fabulous quest for identity, for memory and forgetting, for literature and its formative effects and opens the door to another premise. What if it’s actually better to forget? Umberto Eco, best known for novels such as The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, shares his extraordinary literary knowledge in this semi-philosophical, semi-historical and deeply personal journey of discovery.

Colour plates throughout illustrate the imagery of Disney, Fascist pamphlets, stamp collections, family photographs, comics (originals and politically corrected) while Yambo assumes the role of archaeologists, dusting off his past and ascribing significance. The ‘mysterious flame’ alludes to a story, but also to the flickering tongues of memory as the narrator rebuilds connections and acknowledges the marks made by his reading material.

It’s a gentle voyage into the past and an invitation to consider how much our passive consumption of culture, propaganda, family history and individual obsessions can actively form our personalities. Eco’s prose is at its fullest when he describes the rediscovery of sensual memory.

You’ll enjoy this if you liked: anything by Louis de Bernières, Italo Svevo’s Confessions of Zeno, Pascal Mercier’s Night Train to Lisbon.

Avoid if you dislike: Slow storytelling, the universal revealed through the personal, literary references. 

Ideal accompaniments: Eat oranges and prunes soaked in brandy with Amaretti and listen to Lakmé by Delibes.

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