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VINE VOICEon 1 March 2006
Its a fact that all of Umberto Eco's novels are remarkable. Which doesn't necessarily make them easy to read. Both "Foucault's Pendulum" and "The Name of the Rose" are on my all time top ten list - while I couldn not finish either "Baudolino" or "The Island of the Day Before. " I'm glad to say that I finished TMFOQL .
The premise of the novel is fascinating. Yambo, an Italian antiquarian book dealer comes to in hospital ,following a car crash, and has no memory of his personal life right up to his accident. However, he remembers the plot of almost every book which he has ever read. The only ones he doesn't remember are those which he had an intense personal connection to. The narrative of the novel deals with Yambo's attempts to recapture his own personal history, which he does through revisiting his boyhood home, and much of the literature of all kinds which he read when he was young.
If that sounds dry or rather academic, please don't be put off. Its far more than this. The novel makes deeply interesting points about the way that we make memories, and the part that literature, music, in fact all forms of popular culture cannot be divorced from our everyday lives, but are in fact an integral part of the tapestry of memory. I became highly involved with Yambo's quest, and found it deeply moving. Don't be surprised, though, as you read it, if you find yourself wondering wether Yambo should ever have tried to recapture his past . Actually, thinking about this I am sure that Eco is implicitly asking the reader this question.
You must stick with this one. It does drive to a point. Even if it strikes you that the seemingly endless recollection of comic books, pul literature, and adolescent adventure stories from Yambo's childhood does go on for too long, it is necessary and important.
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on 10 November 2006
On p.252 of this novel GianBattista Bodoni, the first person narrator, says "It was a ramshackle story, no part of which held water ... an incredibly slipshod narrative that lacks both charm and psychology". Bodoni's comments refer to an old comic book called "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana", but apply equally to Eco's novel of the same name, which is a scruffy, self-indulgent, tedious homage to the literature and art of Bodoni's childhood. In this, Bodoni is Eco's mouthpiece, and Eco takes full advantage in an exhaustive and nostalgic journey through the major cultural influences of his early years, and the fantasy worlds they helped him, as a child, to build. Given the narrator's comments about the Queen Loana comic book, it is just possible that Eco is playing a trick on his readers - by leading them through a fiction that is as ramshackle, slipshod and charmless as the comic book Bodoni describes. Ha, ha, the joke's on you reader. If so, that would just confirm the vanity and self-importance that are this novel's hallmarks. I think the truth is more mundane, if rather puzzling - Eco has produced an absolute stinker.

Bodoni is trying to recover his affective and emotional memory following a stroke. The stroke has not affected his encyclopedic memory - he can remember words and facts from all the books, newspapers, films, posters, comics etc he has read or seen. But he doesn't recognise his wife or family, and cannot recall anything that is held in the memorey by its association with emotional states (love, political and ethical convictions, tastes and preferences etc.). So he goes on a journey to his childhood home, to browse through an attic full of mementoes in an attempt to recover his memory and thereby find out who he really is.

It's a tried and tested formula for exploring notions of personal identity, in this case by relating the formative experience of books to emotional and personal development. BUT - and it's a big BUT - Bodoni's character is unconvincing, self-obsessed and dull. The long, middle section is little more than a list of the books he finds in the attic with endlessly repetitive questions suggested by the characters he encounters in them - "perhaps that's why I had felt ...", "was this the source of the quote?"... maybe this, perhaps that, possibly this. It is truly tedious, and I was tempted to give up several times.

Once he starts to recover his memory, there are some better passages recounting a key incident from his experience of World War II. It is at this point that Eco remembers the basic principles of writing fiction - you have to tell a story, rather than write a rambling monologue.

Unfortunately, the improvement is a blip, and Bodoni returns to the suffocating hyperindividualism of his tunnel-like vision as the "theatrical" denouement approaches.

I didn't give up on this book, I managed to finish it. I was curious to know if it could remain so poor to the end. After all Eco's first book, The Name of the Rose, is a classic. But to no avail. Its only fascination for me is that it is one of the worst books I've ever read.
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on 19 May 2005
I have been fowllowing the author's books since my early teens, when I first came upon The Name of the Rose in my uncle's library. It was a hard read for me at the time, but it made a big impression on me. Several years later I bought my own copy and reread the book, to decide it would be forever in my top 10 list. I have read all Eco books since then, always hoping to find something equally great. Unfortunately, I was always disappointed. I have never come across a bad book of the author, but they just could not compare. Then, a few days ago I came upon The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. And finally, I had one more book I just could not put down. The subject is a little "hard", a middle-aged Italian trying to recover his memory by scanning through his childhood books and mementos, practically reliving his childhood years and attempting to rediscover himslef. Maybe it will be a little foreign to people not familiar with post-WW2 european history, but I still highly recommended. At some point around the middle of the book, I thought it would get tiresome, and then a great twist in the plot and my attentions is completely captured again. Eco at his best.
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to one another. To live is to remember and to remember is to live. To die is to forget and to forget is to die." Samuel Butler
I approached Umberto Eco's new novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, with some trepidation. I have sometime found Eco's work to be a bit difficult to get through. It became very apparent that I would have no such problems with this book. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was not only a very accessible book but, more importantly, it was at once both immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Before turning to the book itself, I found it interesting that the book is filled with illustrations. Throughout the book World War Two propaganda posters, newspaper clippings, comic book pages, and ads from Italian fashion magazines are printed alongside the text. Some might assert that Eco's reliance on illustrations may detract from the text or represent something of a gimmick. I think the illustrations are visually stunning and serve to recreate the social and political atmosphere of Italy in the 1930s and 1940s during which time much of the book takes place. They add a visual punch to the thoughts of Eco's narrator.
The book opens with Giambattista Boldoni, a 59-year old rare book dealer, awaking from a light coma in a hospital after suffering a stroke. It is determined quickly that Boldoni, known to his friends and family since childhood as Yambo, is suffering from partial amnesia. Although he has a vivid memory of social and cultural events through his life he has no memory of anything relating to his personal life. The first chapter is a classic of pop-culture allusions and metaphors. Yambo's sentences come out in stream of consciousness fashion with no personal context at all. Yambo's sentences consist of a series of bits of quotations from Poe, Conan-Doyle, Robert Lewis Stevenson, songs, ad slogans and other reference that I could spend weeks trying to identify. The rest of the book, like Eco's Name of the Rose of The Island of the Day before is something of a detective story. Yambo turns sleuth and sets out to discover who he is and how he came to be him.
Yambo and his wife agree in short order that this mystery would best be solved if Yambo moves back to his family's country home were Yambo spent most of his childhood. He arrives to find that most of his possessions and those of his parents and grandparents are stored in the attic or in various locations throughout the house. He begins opening boxes to find old phonograph records, school notebooks, photographs, Italian and American comic books and newspaper clippings dating back to the 30s and 40s'. Some of these items ignite a little spark in his head (as Eco puts it) but nothing really serves to restore his memories. Those little sparks seem futile and frustrate Yambo, like a butane cigarette lighter on a windy day must frustrate a smoker just dying to light up a smoke. Nevertheless, Yambo makes some progress. About halfway through the book Eco introduces a dramatic twist in the plot (which will not be divulged) that changes the nature of Yambo's quest.
The second half of the book is devoted to Yambo's examination of his life as he now remembers it and the meaning of his quest for his identity. Answer to questions raised in the first half of the book, such as Yambo's strange attraction for foggy days, are explained. The tone of the narrative in this half of the book is quite different from the narrative in the first. As more information is revealed to Yambo, and to the reader, the focus turns not just to Yambo's quest for memory but the importance of memory in one's life. At the same time, what we choose to forget is sometimes just as important to the structure of our lives as that which we choose to remember.
The intricate thought processes of Yambo as he seeks to recreate his life are set out beautifully by Eco. It is hard to describe the impact of Eco's writing except to refer back to the sentences that Samuel Butler wrote after those lines that started this review:
"Everything is so much involved in and is so much a process of its opposite that, as it is almost fair to call death a process of life and life a process of death, so it is to call memory a process of forgetting and forgetting a process of remembering." Memory and forgetfulness are as life and death to one another, for Yambo and, through Yambo's thoughts, to the reader.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is well worth reading.
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The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is a side of Umberto Eco that you haven't seen before . . . and I think you will like it . . . especially if you found the references in The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum to be a little too much for you.
The book's premise is much like that of The Arabian Nights, an excuse to introduce an interesting story teller who unravels a fascinating tale that could go on endlessly. In this case, the device is a stroke which causes Yambo to lose his memory of most everything (including his name) except what he has read. Recuperating from his stroke, Yambo receives hints from his wife and best friend about what he's like . . . and discovers that he has a weakness for the ladies. What does that mean about his relationship with his beautiful, young assistant?
Soon frustrated by his memoryless life in Milan, Yambo goes back to his childhood home to see if anything there resurrects any memories. He discovers a house and attic full of the past through which he relives the history of Italians his age. Later, a second stroke restores his memory, and he relives his life as it happened . . . with a little fantasy attached.
It's a witty commentary on the vacuity of the "official" record of our times to see how little of Yambo's life the effects of his life captured.
For those who aren't Italian, the book offers deep and thoughtful look at what it meant to live in Italy under the Fascists. At times, it seemed like the musical comedy version of Gunter Grass's books about Nazi Germany.
The book dazzles most, however, with its many full color illustrations from books, magazines, posters and other cultural icons. These images make the mental pictures conjured up by Eco's words stronger and more lasting. Be sure to check out the section on sources of citations and references that begin on 451. These details will add to your enjoyment of the illustrations.
As I read the book, I wished that I knew a few more languages (especially German and Italian), but most of the references were either easy to appreciate or covered in context by another reference that I understood. Naturally, some Ph.D. student will write a dissertation that firmly fixes all of the references, but that will be too stuffy to read for this breezy, charming effort.
What is life? What is memory? What is reality? These fundamental questions are all beautifully addressed in both sublime (images of perfect love) and the mundane (relieving oneself among the vineyard rows.
It's great fun, and I highly recommend this book to you. It's the high brow's perfect beach read!
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to one another. To live is to remember and to remember is to live. To die is to forget and to forget is to die." Samuel Butler
I approached Umberto Eco's new novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, with some trepidation. I have sometime found Eco's work to be a bit difficult to get through. It became very apparent that I would have no such problems with this book. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was not only a very accessible book but, more importantly, it was at once both immensely enjoyable and thought-provoking.
Before turning to the book itself, I found it interesting that the book is filled with illustrations. Throughout the book World War Two propaganda posters, newspaper clippings, comic book pages, and ads from Italian fashion magazines are printed alongside the text. Some might assert that Eco's reliance on illustrations may detract from the text or represent something of a gimmick. I think the illustrations are visually stunning and serve to recreate the social and political atmosphere of Italy in the 1930s and 1940s during which time much of the book takes place. They add a visual punch to the thoughts of Eco's narrator.
The book opens with Giambattista Boldoni, a 59-year old rare book dealer, awaking from a light coma in a hospital after suffering a stroke. It is determined quickly that Boldoni, known to his friends and family since childhood as Yambo, is suffering from partial amnesia. Although he has a vivid memory of social and cultural events through his life he has no memory of anything relating to his personal life. The first chapter is a classic of pop-culture allusions and metaphors. Yambo's sentences come out in stream of consciousness fashion with no personal context at all. Yambo's sentences consist of a series of bits of quotations from Poe, Conan-Doyle, Robert Lewis Stevenson, songs, ad slogans and other reference that I could spend weeks trying to identify. The rest of the book, like Eco's Name of the Rose of The Island of the Day before is something of a detective story. Yambo turns sleuth and sets out to discover who he is and how he came to be him.
Yambo and his wife agree in short order that this mystery would best be solved if Yambo moves back to his family's country home were Yambo spent most of his childhood. He arrives to find that most of his possessions and those of his parents and grandparents are stored in the attic or in various locations throughout the house. He begins opening boxes to find old phonograph records, school notebooks, photographs, Italian and American comic books and newspaper clippings dating back to the 30s and 40s'. Some of these items ignite a little spark in his head (as Eco puts it) but nothing really serves to restore his memories. Those little sparks seem futile and frustrate Yambo, like a butane cigarette lighter on a windy day must frustrate a smoker just dying to light up a smoke. Nevertheless, Yambo makes some progress. About halfway through the book Eco introduces a dramatic twist in the plot (which will not be divulged) that changes the nature of Yambo's quest.
The second half of the book is devoted to Yambo's examination of his life as he now remembers it and the meaning of his quest for his identity. Answer to questions raised in the first half of the book, such as Yambo's strange attraction for foggy days, are explained. The tone of the narrative in this half of the book is quite different from the narrative in the first. As more information is revealed to Yambo, and to the reader, the focus turns not just to Yambo's quest for memory but the importance of memory in one's life. At the same time, what we choose to forget is sometimes just as important to the structure of our lives as that which we choose to remember.
The intricate thought processes of Yambo as he seeks to recreate his life are set out beautifully by Eco. It is hard to describe the impact of Eco's writing except to refer back to the sentences that Samuel Butler wrote after those lines that started this review:
"Everything is so much involved in and is so much a process of its opposite that, as it is almost fair to call death a process of life and life a process of death, so it is to call memory a process of forgetting and forgetting a process of remembering." Memory and forgetfulness are as life and death to one another, for Yambo and, through Yambo's thoughts, to the reader.
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is well worth reading.
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on 31 December 2005
‘TMFOQL’ is a departure for Umberto Eco. All of his other novels are either set in the distant past or are rich with medieval references and imagery. ‘TMFOQL’ is very much a twentieth century book with modern themes and ideas. It is also the easiest to read and understand of all of his works and hopefully will bring him to a wider audience.
‘TMFOQL’ is the story of Yambo, a Milanese book dealer. After an undefined incident he wakes in the hospital with no memory of his life, or of the world as a whole, except what he has read in books or seen in films. Unable to recognise his wife, children or home, he is sent to a house in the country in which he did most of his growing up in an effort to jog his memory. He reads the books and comics he read as a child, and tries to piece together his growing up from them. Prominent in his collection are pro-fascist comics and stories, and his schoolbooks, also full of pro-fascist jottings. As an older man he is determinedly anti-fascist, and he tries to work out how this change happened using the things of his childhood. When he suffers a second incident, his memories come flooding back, and he is able to compare the real causes of his growing up with the ones he guessed at from the evidence that he could find.
‘TMFOQL’ is a surprisingly personal book from Eco, whose characters are usually too far removed and themes too lofty to see the author in any of them. Yambo the bibliophile is easily identifiable with Eco, and the vivid descriptions of Yambo’s childhood literature can only have come from Eco’s own upbringing. This creates a more intimate feel than Eco’s other books. However, some of Eco’s trademarks, such as the layers of truth and sly winks to the readers, are still very much in evidence. There is a strong ironic twist on Marcel Proust’s ‘Search for Lost Time’. In Proust’s book, the objects and senses of our childhoods can be used to reconstruct the events of our lives. Eco has a wry smile at this idea, as Yambo’s attempts to reconstruct his past fail to tell him anything meaningful about himself. Like all Eco’s books, ‘TMFOQL’ is a very clever book, but is much more accessible and personal than the others. If you have struggles with Eco in the past, this could be the one to get you started.
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on 17 June 2007
A 60 year old man wakes up unable to remember any of his own history, but with his factual memory intact. A visit to his childhood home provides a great excuse to revisit the literature, music and ephemera of childhood, from imported (and re-written) comics to old records and self-penned poems. And because this was during the war, we get a meditation on how propaganda is interpreted by the 'audience'.

The addition of pictures adds so much more to the nostalgia trip, and the publishers deserve credit for not talking Eco out of a move that must have required significant time to chase copyright permission, etc. If nothing else, this is a lovely document of pulp literature of the 40s and 50s.

But what about the story? Well, it's an odd one. Plot-wise you could call it 'voyage and return', at a push. And there's echoes of Fellini's 'Amarcord' in the era and the fog. There's enough here to keep you reading, and the second part of the book compellingly answers some questions posed in the first. But the ending... the ending is disappointing, doing nothing. Which is a shame, but doesn't detract from the enjoyable journey to get there, as original as you'd expect from Eco, if not as good as most of his other work.
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on 10 January 2006
I know people think that Umberto Eco's books are impenetrable, esoteric and overly intellectual, but personally I love them. This one, however, is the one I've enjoyed the least. It is certainly the most beautifully presented (one of the most beautifully printed books I've ever read) and that certainly helps, but the story is somewhat uninspiring.
It's clearly a very personal book for Eco, with a great deal of what I assume must be his own life (particularly his childhood and the songs, books, comics and politics that surrounded him) used to provide authenticity to the story. This does certainly work, but didn't alter the fact that there really wasn't a story. It's a book about memory and memories, and it shows Eco's usual flair for language and knowledge of pretty much everything, but compared with Baudolino, Foucault's Pendulum or the Name of the Rose, all of which had engaging stories, this one feels self-indulgent, and ultimately somewhat empty.
Not a bad book, certainly, and one that is beautifully written, but not one I particularly enjoyed reading.
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on 15 September 2015
A novel about memory, loss, holding onto love, forgetting horrors. To begin with it reads like a fictionalised Oliver Sacks case history but with a first person narrative - a man loses all personal memory after a stroke and attempts to reconstruct his life through the books and comics he's had in storage at his grandfather's house. It's also a meditation on growing up in Mussolini's Italy. It's also a quest for the source of his first (anima)-love. And a discussion on fog as a metaphor. And a hymn to books.

The novel beautifully uses ilustrations from the books and magazines. It could certainly do with some editing and pruning - the central section about the books is too long for certain. But then there is the plot development that makes a somewhat dry book come fully to life (I won't spoil the plot) in the final part. At the end I was moved.
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