The OF Blog: A Mysterious Flame Sparks a Mysterious Mark

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Mysterious Flame Sparks a Mysterious Mark

Sometimes, a reader manages to be treated to two wildly different and yet equally good reads in the span of a weekend. This indeed was the case for myself, as I completed on Friday Isabel Allende's latest work, Zorro (published this past May simultaneously in English and Spanish editions), and Umberto Eco's newest work, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (the English translation was published around the first of June). These two works by two widely-acknowledged masters of prosery are very different in theme and focus, and yet there is a connection that binds them deeply together, at least within the recesses of this reviewer's heart.

Allende has made a name for herself, both within the US and in Latin America, for stories that invoke a sense of magical realism, yet while containing fully realized characters. She continues this blending of elements in her retelling of the Zorro myth from the vantage point of how Diego de la Vega became the Masked Zorro. Hard as it is to believe, this is the first full-length written novel devoted to Zorro and Allende has taken great pains to make the experience a vivid one for the reader. Now I read this book in the original Spanish so I have little idea how the translator might have rendered this into English, but Allende was very detailed and yet brief with her descriptions of the plains, mountains, and arroyos of Alta California during the Mission Era of the 1790s. The scenery either glows or is dank based on the needs of the plot, and the places just seem so alive. Her human characters, however, are a fitting match, from the couragious Toypurnia, who meets her match (and makes a match of a different sort) in Alejandro de la Vega, to the dastardly Rafael Moncada to Diego himself. Allende has breathed life into all of them, placing motivations into their actions that go far beyond mere swashbuckling and which touch upon how utterly human these legendary characters really might have been.

The plot moves quickly, but do not be disappointed if there are few scenes involving the masked man with the Z logo. This is, after all, a prequel of sorts, explaining how Diego de la Vega became Zorro and why his struggle for justice for all resounds so much with our imaginations, nearly two centuries after his legendary exploits were supposed to have begun.

Eco's The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana reveals a much more introspective Eco, one whom seems to be concentrating more on the mysterious of one's own membrances rather than on contextual wordplay which was his hallmark in tales such as The Name of the Rose and Baudolino. The story is an interesting one, as an antique book dealer, Yambo, suffers a mysterious ailment and is left suffering from partial amnesia. While he can remember quite clearly the things he has read, he has absolutely no memory of his personal life.

While I'm not going to spoil the plot of this story (and to say much more than what I'm about to would ruin all sorts of surprises for the reader), I will note that Eco displays a very keen wit here, one in which the protagonist's partial memories of the stories read, the loves forgotten or transmogrified, or the experiences buried in the tales of comic books and children's poetry are all somehow blended into an exploration of what makes one a human being. It is by far the most moving of Eco's stories that I've read and underneath the veneer of harmless retrospection, one of the most penetrating and even frightening looks into what makes us us. The closest tales I can think to what he tales are some of Borges's tales (especially the inversion of Funes, the Memorious) and Gene Wolfe's Latro in the Mist duology, not to mention a possible connection to the movie Memento (which I haven't seen, yet have heard that it covers some of the same themes as this book). But Eco doesn't copy any of these authors; if anything it's more of a coincidental convergence of ideas, as Eco's exploration of the Self goes in different directions than the authors I've read before.

Now I've said that there is a common bond between these two authors, tenuous as it might appear at first glance. What struck me most after completing both of them was just how well the authors used their abilities with the written Word to invoke reflective responses on the reader's part. Whether it be by enabling us to imagine a young Zorro in action or finding ourselves reliving vicariously our childhood memories of action-packed Saturday matinees through Yambo's struggles to make sense of himself, both Allende and Eco invoke that "mysterious flame," that je ne sais quoi, that unspeakable and yet utterly heartfelt something, that causes us to dream the dreams that we dream, to feel the fears that we feel, to love those whom we love, to be just what we are - human beings.

In short, these authors' works reflect the very best of what fiction of any sort, whether you want to call it speculative or not, can inflict upon the reader's emotions. These are stories well worth reading and re-reading, if only for the memories and the often-futile grasps for understanding that we might have as consequences of having read them.

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