NEW YORK — Reading Umberto Eco’s latest novel, “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,” is like being submerged in a vast sea of cultural references, philosophical musings and literary witticisms. In other words, it’s like every other Eco novel.
So it should come as no surprise that Eco’s conversational repartee is equally playful. “I try never to speak about the personal story of my characters because if I could do that in a few words, I would have sent a telegram instead of writing a novel,” he quips in response to a question on the provenance of his protagonist’s identity.
Thankfully, Eco resisted the telegram. An internationally respected semiotics professor at the University of Bologna in Italy, Eco, 73, first made the jump into fiction-writing in 1980 with “The Name of the Rose,” a complex mystery set in the Middle Ages that indulged his knowledge of medieval aesthetics. In his following books, like “Foucault’s Pendulum” and “Baudolino,” Eco continued to turn out multilayered and largely historical narratives that displayed his sweeping knowledge of literature, language and philosophy.
On the surface, “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana,” his fifth novel (out from Harcourt on Friday), seems a departure from his earlier works. Set in present-day Italy, it tells the tale of the middle-aged, rare book dealer Giambattista ‘Yambo’ Bodoni, who at the book’s outset wakes up from a coma to find he has lost any memory of his personal life. But his encyclopedic mental catalogue of the books and images he has absorbed is fully, and at times, frustratingly intact. Yambo sets out on a quest to rediscover his identity, returning to his childhood home of Solara to dig through crates of his old books, records and magazines.
Though this is arguably Eco’s most personal book, as many of Yambo’s childhood experiences coincide with his own, it should not be mistaken for a memoir. “I think that as everybody gets older they would like to write the stories of his or her childhood,” says Eco by telephone from Milan. “I got the idea, not to write the book about my personal childhood, but about my generation’s childhood.”
In constructing this collective memorial, Eco relied on pictorial artifacts, interspersing images throughout the book. “All the memories I had of the novels I read in my youth were illustrated books,” he says. “Certainly this is a book born from nostalgia and I had in my mind all those images.”
This story first appeared in the June 2, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Figuring heavily in this visual quilt are pictures from old comic books, predominantly American, which Eco juxtaposed with Fascist posters and songs to demonstrate that “comic books were the counterpart of Fascist education.” Even the book’s title and recurring “mysterious flame” motif come from a comic of the same name, albeit one whose plot barely registers. “I was fascinated by this title,” recalls Eco. “I discovered it was a mutual fascination for other people of my generation … sort of a magic spell.”
It is no coincidence the title still evokes such awe in Eco and his contemporaries. “Maybe I am too Proustian, but I think the adult life is sort of a continuous retrieving and rediscovery of our childhood,” says Eco. “It does not mean that we are not creating new things, events. But the very important point is to in a way succeed in returning to your childhood.”