(by Umberto Eco).
Umberto Eco may have been a gift from God (Ex Caelis Oblatus) but this novel is not divinely inspired. Yambo (Giambattista Bodoni), the narrator, is fog-bound. Following an ‘incident’ (a stroke?), he loses his episodic memory. His doctor explains, “It’s episodic memory that establishes a link between who we are today and who we have been, and without it, when we say ‘I’, we’re referring only to what we’re feeling now, not to what we felt before, which gets lost, as you say, in the fog.”
This concept is applied rather loosely by Eco in the service of allowing Yambo, now in his sixties, to recapture his past. In particular, Yambo revisits his childhood in wartime Italy by rereading the books and comics and listening to the music of that time, which are all luckily stored at the family’s country house in Solara. Unfortunately, the reams and reams of description of fascistic Italian comics are unlikely to enrapture anyone other than Eco’s contempories.
Yambo’s current life as an antiquarian book dealer is of little interest to Eco, save and except that it allows him to tack on Yambo’s cloying and creepy obsession with his beautiful (naturally), exotic (naturally) and talented (naturally) young assistant Sibilla. Yambo’s wife Paola exists only to provide expository and unlikely dialogue, such as:-” [Your sister Ada] was taken in by your mother’s brother and sister-in-law, who had become your legal guardians. But Ada got married young, at eighteen, to a guy who whisked her off to live in Australia. You don’t see each other often. She makes it to Italy about as often as the pope dies. Your aunt and uncle sold the family house in the city, and almost all the Solara land. Thanks to the proceeds, you ware able to continue your studies, but you quickly gained your independence from them by wining a university scholarship, and you went to live in Turin. From that point on you seemed to forget Solara. I insisted, after Carla and Nicoletta were born, that we go there for summers.:”’
Yambo’s college friend Gianni exists, on the phone, to provide Yambo with the young manhood details and dirty sniggers that Paola cannot. Amalia, the long-term housekeeper at Solara, provides further exposition in an amusing peasant dialect. – (“She looked serious: ‘Barn owls, no, good critters that never hurt a body. But over yonder,…yonder they’ve still got hellcats. What’s a hellcat? I’m almost afraid to say…'”) The one truly successful character – the only one who seems to have a soul – is Gragnola, an anarchist philosopher whose discourses on the nature of God are the best aspect of the book.
Of course, Eco is masterly in his reflections about what makes us who we are, consciousness and rebirth. As his daughter Nicoletta provides him with another detail of his forgotten life, Yambo reflects, “A new chapter for my future autobiography. Written by someone else”, and…“Is it worth it to be born if you cannot remember it later? And, technically speaking, had I even been born? Other people, of course, said that I was. As far as I know, I was born in late April, at sixty years of age, in a hospital room”.
Eco’s Yambo is erudite, cool and no-nonsense, with a nice turn of phrase :-“I think everyone writes poems when they are sixteen; it is a phase in the passage from adolescence to adulthood. I do not remember where I read that there are two kinds of poets: the good poets, who at a certain point destroy their bad poems and go off to run guns in Africa, and the bad poets, who publish theirs and keep writing more until they die.
Perhaps that is not really how things go, but my poems were bad. Not dreadful or repulsive, which might suggest some genius provocateur, but pathetically obvious. Was it worth it to come back to Solara to discover that I was a hack? But at least I could be proud of one thing: I had sealed away those abortions in a box, in a chapel with a walled-up door, and had dedicated myself to collecting other people’s books. I must have been, at eighteen admirably lucid, critically incorruptible.”
But none of this is enough. Reading “The Mysterious Flame” is just hard work.
A further incident late in the book* [spoiler alert] results in Yambo’s being lost to active life but recalled to memory. This latter section is (apart from a tedious fantasy episode and the overuse of the boring “face once glimpsed and never forgotten” trope) more effective as Yambo tells about the boys’ own-type escapades of his youth.
For meditations on consciousness, delusion and memory, go to see “The Matrix”, “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”** or “Memento”. Eat some madelines, hire a point-and-click video game, read Poe.
*Yambo’s second (?) stroke is brought on by his discovery, among his late grandfather’s books, of a 1623 first folio Shakespeare. (“Every bibliophile’s number two dream.” The first is Gutenberg’s forty-line Bible). Coincidentally, while we at TVC were reading “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana”, such a manuscript was discovered in a library in St-Omer in northern France.
**”How happy is the blameless Vestal’s lot? The world forgetting, by the world forgot: Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind! Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d” (Alexander Pope Eloisa to Abelard)