Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco

It took me a very long time to complete this book. I wish it hadn't. I wished I'd just left it now and continued or restarted somewhere in the indefinite future. Maybe then I would have appreciate the stunning ending, despite the terribly rocky start. I borrowed it from the library and read it, specifically for The Historical Fiction Challenge.

Summary: The book starts mysteriously, with a man waking from a coma quoting literary character. "What's you name?" the doctor asks and Yambo, a rare book-dealer solemnly answers, "My name is Arthur Gordon Pym", followed quickly by a puzzled, "Call me... Ishmael?" Yambo suffers from a strange type of memory loss, in that he remembers every book he has ever read (and he has read many) but could tell you nothing about his family, his wife and daughters, his parents and himself. Yambo determinedly sets off to his childhood home, somewhere in the hills between Milan and Turin, to retrieve his memories; using what he knows best, all the evidences of history: books, prints, songs, poetry. As it turns out, his grandfather is quite the collector.

Let us hop over to the Goodreads summary: "There, in the sprawling attic, he searches through boxes of old newspapers, comics, records, photo albums, and adolescent diaries. And so Yambo relives the story of his generation: Mussolini, Catholic education and guilt, Josephine Baker, Flash Gordon, Fred Astaire. His memories run wild, and the life racing before his eyes takes the form of a graphic novel. Yambo struggles through the frames to capture one simple, innocent image: that of his first love."

“History is a blood-drenched enigma and the world an error.”

My thoughts: The concept, you have to agree, is amazing. It is a bit unstructured, why Yambo remembers what he remembers is a framework that could easily crumble. But the idea of books, newspapers, old photos and journals reviving your past is fantastically arguable and makes you ponder over the strangeness of memory and association. I am a complete pack-rat and I could still tell you with little certainty what emotions anything in my room would evoke if I lost my memory. Could you imagine that? Trying to remember your past by the objects that you lined it with. I certainly can't, I'm not me because of those things, and for that; the book and its ending were satisfying. 

However, every ten pages, amazing alternated with horrible. I liked understanding the German poems, deciphering the Italian songs and gazing at the comical old ads and prints. I loved the rich descriptions of feelings and places and memory and fogs in the mind. Eco can really write, paint pictures that could only be described as glorious. However, the journey, the rummaging through old belongings lost its flavour after the first forty belongings. The plot was unruly, it utterly lacked design, was mindbogglingly slow paced and it took me a lot of patience to trudge through to the end. The book hardly moved forward for long patches of time and though Yambo's thoughts about his condition and about the idea of his past were intriguing, engaging; I soon only wished he'd find something, already! The ending was perfect, but I was already too tired to appreciate it. The moment I finished reading the last line, I was glad that it was over; and what does that say about a book?

I still do want to read Baudolino, though. Umberto Eco is an undoubtedly great writer. 

6 comments:

harish p i said...

I had read Eco's masterpiece Foucault's Pendulum which was a really tough book to read but fascinating. Planning to read his bookThe Name of Rose sometime soon. I had read somewhere that in the starting of that novel Eco has placed a long, boringchapter which does not have much significance to the plot. The only reason was to put off any casual reader from reading it. The plot of this novel sounds amazing. Also try his collection of humorous essays, How to travel with a salmon. Wonderful book.

Amused said...

I must say, I am not sure this is the book for me, even with the fab ending. Great review!

Priya said...

.. which was more or less my point! Thanks for stopping by!

aliasgarmukhtiar mukhtiar said...

Nice review

Priya said...

Thank you!

Priya said...

Harish - For no reason that I can think of, I unearthed this comment from the spam section! Thanks for the recommendation, I'll definitely like to read a book of essays by him; he's the kind of writer who'd write better shorts; just a guess. Haha, that thing about The Name of the Rose is interesting, but I might be one of those casual readers and skip the book. :)

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