Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana - Umberto Eco

The subject of memory loss has been discussed over many books and movies ( Aki Kurismaki's masterpiece 'A Man without past' is one that comes to mind).  What was interesting to me is that Umberto Eco is taking up this as the subject for the last novel he had written, thus far ( I understand a new novel is expected this year in  Italian and it will be a while before we could get it). I had the book with me for four years and it was only now,  I could take it up for reading.

Yambo ( nickname for Giambattista Bodoni) , nearly sixty , dealer of ancient books in Milan,  suffered a stroke and loses his memory. However, he manages to remember all that was words and he had read and his daily routine. He is able to quote from the books he had read with precise memory, but unable to recall his own name. He does not recognize his wife, his children and grandchildren ( he was very fond of them according to his wife). Every thing that are autobiographical and personal to him is erased. He is now educated with the fundamentals of his past by is wife. But the  wife, friends, subordinate, and children are nothing but the names for him, unable to relate emotionally with them.  He also understand about his business, and his probable affair with his assistant, Sibilia, which he says "I made an advance, and she put me in my place, kindly, gently, firmly. She stayed because I was a gentleman and behaved from that day on as if nothing had happened.''

Advised by his wife, he retreats to their ancestral home at Salora, which still has a large number of books , papers, Gramaphone records and the photographs of his family, with the hope of regrouping himself.  Now abandoned, this will be the perfect place for Yambo to bring back the memories childhood days he had spent there, in building up his own . Though the initial days haven't been of any great help, slowly the place and its abundant collection of memorabilia, takes him to the days of his upbringing.

Yambo, opens up boxes after boxes, goes through the old newspapers, magazines, writings. Slowly he gets immersed into the task of learning the past of his family and himself. Those school days, his secret infatuation for his classmate Laila, who during the schooling left Italy and migrated to Brazil with her family.. He is apparently looking for the same face in every women he meet ever since. His own involvement in the resistance movement, his guilt of witnessing something unpleasant to a child and the fragmented memories of those days are now coming back to him.

The book is filed with illustrations, posters , book covers, poems, cartoon characters. Eco takes us through the days of his childhood, Yambo, tries to find his own identity through these, while connecting the missing points in his personal recovery.  The name of the book itself is adopted from a picture book.

Umberto Eco takes us through the days of second world war, with people living out of fear. Fear of both the allied forces bombing and that of the suspicious eyes of the 'black shirts' ( Mussolini's police). His family themselves had soft corner towards the internal resistance forces and the people secretly nourished a hope of allied forces arriving and ending the war. This has some of the best writings in this book, including few poems.

Dear Papa, my hands are shaking some,
but you will understand what I am saying.
It's been so many days since you left home
and yet you haven't told me where you're staying.
As for the tears that trickle down my cheek,
you can be sure they're only tears of pride.
I still can see you smile and hear you speak,
and your Balilla waits for you, arms wide.
I am helping in the war, I am fighting, too,
with discipline, with honour, and with faith.
I want this land of mine to bear good fruit,
so I tend my little garden every day
( my own war garden!) and ask God each night
to watch you, to make sure my dad's all right.

Yambo suffers another attack and his delirious time, bring him back to the life that he lived in his young days. It is also becoming clearer to him as the 'fog' that covers the truth is now clearing.

Interestingly, the language and style changes in each of the parts. The first part, with Yambo in his present with loss of memory , Yambo through the pages at Salora and the last part with Yambo back in Coma but able to comprehend and remembers everything clearly; each written with a style suitable to the part. Typical to Eco's book, this too appeal more to your intellect, that to your emotive side. Brilliant , nonetheless.

Here is an interview with Eco where he talks about this book.


The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (2004)

Umberto Eco ( Translated from Italian by Geoffrey Brock)

Vintage Books

458 Pages

Rs 429/-

Further read : NY Times ReviewTimes

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