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The Tedious Self-Indulgence of Professor Eco
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.