By Umberto Eco.
Translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock
New York: A Harvest Book: Harcourt, Inc. , 2005
ISBN # 0-15-603043-8
469 pages.

Comments of Bob Corbett
December 2011

Giambattista Bodoi is just short of 60 years old in 1991 and wakes up after having had a massive stroke. He doesn’t really even know who he is or what to make of the world. However, on the very day he wakes from his stroke he is able to get out of the hospital bed and wanders into the bathroom where he sees himself in a mirror.

". . . I saw myself in the mirror. At least I was fairly sure it was me, because mirrors, as everyone knows, reflect what is in front of them. A white hollow face, a long beard, and two sunken eyes. This is great: I do not know who I am but I find out I am a monster.”

He learns that a part of his brain has been badly damaged by his stroke. There are three areas of the brain to consider:

1. Implicit memory (how to do everyday tasks). In his case that seems unaffected.
2. Explicit semantic memory (basic sensual knowledge) also seems untouched.
3. Episodic memory (personal memories of oneself and one’s own history) seems to be completely gone or nearly so. He doesn’t know himself, his wife, children or friends.

He is called Yambo, a childhood name. He learns he is married to Paola and has two daughters Carla and Nicotta, married and living on their own. He also has three grandchildren. However, he doesn’t recognize any of them and seems to know nothing of them.

Two others appear close to him, Sibilla who works for him in his own rare books business, and there is a close friend since childhood, Gainni Laivelli. But, like his own family, he doesn’t really know them at all.

After being at home for a while, and seeing that he remembers a good deal about his business, just no personal memories, he decides to return to his childhood home and hope that somehow memories will be stimulated there and he might begin to remember some personal things and begin building back his life.

He is correct in the strategy. His family has a large estate in the Monferroto area of northern Italy and they still own a manor home near the town of Solara.

Fortunately the family has simply taken all the personal effects of their earlier years and stacked them helter skelter in the attic, and he has these books and other memorabilia to try to stimulate his memories.

He has some episodes which he calls the “mysterious flame” which somehow are experiences that he is almost sure are rare recalls from his episodic memory from before the stroke. Hopefully those are to be the path toward improvement.

This device, his trying to relive in order to recall his life from just before WWII began until the end of his high school days, provides Umberto Eco the opportunity to do a sort of pop cultural history of that period, intermixed with the sort of impact it had on a boy from about age 4 through his 18th year. Eco does wonders with those memories, and adds a lovely feature by making this an illustrated novel filled with page photos of comic books, entertainment ads and such.

This tactic allows Eco to write a deeply personal history of Italy in those years from about 1935 to the early 1950s. The writing and social history are delightful, exciting and revealing since it is told from such a personal point of view.

However, while I loved all the pieces, the novel did not work well for me as a unit. My credulity at both his situation and progress was strained beyond my ability to suspend disbelief. I just couldn’t go the full path necessary to get to Eco’s goal.

Eco seems to always demand a good deal from the reader. This is the fifth of his novels I have read. I first read The Name Of The Rose back in the 1980s, then Foucault’s Pendulum. More recently I have read and commented on two others, The Island Of The Day Before and Baudolino. In those novels he certain demands a lot of the reader and takes one into quite unconventional situations and plots, but in each of those novels the whole worked better for me than in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.

Despite my difficulty with the “whole” of the novel, I did enjoy many of the pieces a great deal. He writes with wit and intelligence and has a vast store of interesting arcane knowledge. He made me laugh often, and some of his boyhood war stories were gripping. The bits and pieces that attracted me were well worth the read. I just had difficulty with the novel as a unit work of art.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett