"...I no longer knew how to go forward, and I didn't know how to go forward because I had lost what came before. That's it, that's how I am. I'm holding a long note, like a stuck record, and since I can't remember the opening notes, I can't finish the song. I wonder what it is I'm supposed to finish, and why. While I was singing without thinking I was actually myself for the duration of my memory, which in that case was what you might call throat memory, with the befores and afters linked together, and I was the complete song, and every time I began it my vocal cords were already preparing to vibrate the sounds to come. I think a pianist works that way, too: even as he plays one note he's readying his fingers to strike the keys that come next. Without the first notes, we won't make it to the last ones, we'll come untuned, and we'll succeed in getting from start to finish only if we somehow contain the entire song within us. I don't know the whole song anymore. I'm like...a burning log. The log burns, but it has no awareness of having once been part of a whole trunk nor any way to find out that it has been, or to know when it caught fire. So it burns up and that's all. I'm living in pure loss." (p. 37)
What makes each of us a "human being?" Even that compound word, "human being," implies a sort of dynamic action, where the living person is in a fluid state between conception and death. What are we "being?" A series of actions, thoughts, mistakes, deceptions, and attempts to wrest order out of chaos seem to delineate human beings from rocks, trees, or even squirrels. We are constantly "being" because of our attempts, benighted as some might see them, to remake and reorder our environs, to utilize that evolutionary tool called "memory" to recall, however imperfectly, our past experiences, never permits us to be static; we have to keep living in order to postpone dying, whether that be a metaphorical or biological death.
But what if our memories were taken from us? What if we could not recall why that ray of sunshine shining through the patio makes us sigh and smile wistfully? What if we hear a voice and do not associate that voice with a lover, with a child, or with a friend? If our identity, those things that we devise to center ourselves at the crux of so many semantic associations, is lost, then who are we? Are we that burning log described above, burning but without knowing that it was once part of something grander?
This is the issue that Umberto Eco tackles in his fifth novel, 2004's La Misteriosa Fiamma della Regina Loana, published in English translation in 2005 as The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. A late middle-aged (roughly 60 years old) rare books dealer, Yambo, wakes up in a Milanese hospital in 1991 (roughly around the time that the Persian Gulf War ends, based on internal evidence) with no memory of his individual past, only the snippets of information that he learned from songs, comic strips, poetry, and prose. Over the next couple of months, he is reintroduced to his family, his assistant (and possible mistress?) and friends before visiting his childhood home in Solari, where a treasure trove of material from his youth is stored at the family residence.
Eco is renowned for his erudite cataloging of minutiae, errata, and other material evidence of belief structures (he was a leading semiotics professor before he became a novelist in 1980). At first glance, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana would seem to share little with works such as The Name of the Rose, Foucault's Pendulum, The Island of the Day Before, or Baudolino, as the narrative is grounded firmly in the present and there are no esoteric theories on reality or the structure of the universe on display. Even the narrative contains a deceptively simpler, more personable tone to it. Yet appearances can be deceiving. Re-reading The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana two years after reading his non-fiction The Infinity/Vertigo of Lists, there are certain parallels can be made between those two works and from there with his other novels. Yambo's exploration of his past through the comic books and penny dreadful-type pulp novels that were common reading materials of Italian youth in the 1930s and 1940s opens up new possibilities. How would we be affected if we were to see beloved childhood texts for the first time in years? Would we have deep associational memories attached to say Harold and the Purple Crayon or Happiness is a Warm Puppy (two of my earliest books that I read)?
As Yambo delves into this obscured literary/personal history, he begins to recall more and more information. The "fog" that he often would note (and quote from divers literary sources) starts to dissipate, with interesting new connections being revealed. When I first read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, I found these recalled memories and associations to be almost impenetrable, as they were not images of my generation (just as perhaps the post 9/11 generation might not fully grasp what the Iranian hostage situation or the Challenger explosion meant to my age cohort) and there was a barely-perceived invisible barrier that kept me from understanding what was transpiring during the latter quarter of the novel. Although still difficult at times to process during the recent re-read, the combination of nostalgia and recalling of past dreams and memories is more understandable to me now that I'm nearing middle age. Interesting how perceptions can change with time and experience, something that I suspect Eco had at least partially in mind as he was constructing this novel.
Despite The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana being different in structure and focus from his previous novels, I still found it to be a challenging yet ultimately rewarding read. It may not present at first the formidable challenges that his most famous works do, being that it is centered around a nearly-average man's struggle to recall his life and first love, but it too contains layers of depth that make it a novel that deserves several re-reads spaced out over a long period of years for more of its hidden treasures to be revealed to readers. Eco is never an "easy read," but like its predecessors, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is a worthwhile read for those readers who want a deeper challenge than what they typically find in most literature today.