“The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,” Boldtype, July 2005
When Yambo, an antique book dealer in Milan, first rises from the hospital bed, he finds himself speaking in quotations. Asked his name, he responds, “Call me… Ishmael?” A stroke has left him with a special amnesia, which has caused him to lose his “public” memory — the ideas, emotions, and relationships that have defined his life — while the cold facts of living remain (chewing, driving, etc.), as well as every book, comic, tune, or film that his brain has absorbed over the years.
Author and semiotician Umberto Eco (The Name of the Rose, On Literature) has contrived an inventive, allusive meditation on the inseparability of art and life. Taking the Proustian conceit to new heights, Eco recasts the story of mental recall in terms of lost self. Yambo soon discovers that encyclopedia entries, old newspapers, or even panels in a comic book can revive memories suppressed since the accident.
Looking at his unfamiliar wife or his wrinkled face in the mirror, he asks, “Who am I?” The answers are in Sherlock Holmes, ’40s-era vinyl, snatches of poetry, and ancient pulp novels. Having lost all other touchstones, Yambo heads to the family library in the attic of his childhood home, where he experiences dusty books and artifacts anew, trying to resurrect the life that has fled his brain. Luckily for Yambo, art can bear the weight of such a rejuvenation. Brimming with exquisitely reproduced illustrations, Queen Loana mimics the quests of the daredevil heroes of his youth, but with Eco’s narrative twist, the damsel to be saved is the detective himself.
The metaphysics of the novel are playful, if quite academic. Eco governs an impressive stable of quotations with precision, and the references of this dizzyingly allusive novel are gamely rendered in Geoffrey Brock‘s translation. Yambo’s literary journey vividly demonstrates the spiritual dimension of having art in one’s life — a hard look at the cultural sediment around us gives deep insight into the people we have become.