Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Flame is Extinguished

I've been attempting to gather my thoughts on Eco's book The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana but have not been successful.  It is a great read, don't get me wrong, but it as book that has quite a bit of depth.  That's one of the things I like about it.   The premise of the book is easy: the main character, Yambo, has a stroke and wakes up in the hospital to discover that he can remember absolutely nothing about his personal life but all kinds of things about books.  As the doctor tells him, he has lost his emotional memory.  What that means is he can remember how to do things like talk and brush his teeth, he can remember books he has read (since he is an antiquarian book dealer by trade, books are what his memory is now).  There's a catch though, if a book he read had any emotional significance, became part of his life in some way, he can't remember it.  He also doesn't remember his name or his childhood, his wife or his daughters or the numerous affairs that he had. His wife, a psychiatrist, is strangely calm and unworried about it.  She is all understanding and helpfulness.   Once Yambo returns home he has to relearn how to navigate ever day life.  He goes on walks and meets people who know him well, even a former lover, but he has no recollection of them and plays it as best he can.  He goes back to work and seeing his beautiful young assistant, Sibilla, tickles his pylorus.  Yambo worries what their relationship was.  Were they having an affair?  He becomes afraid to go to work and begins to feel trapped.  His good wife sends him off to spend some time in the country at Solara, the family home that belonged once to his grandfather and now belongs to Yambo.  Nobody has lived or visited Solara in a long time, but it has been ably kept by Amalia, long time faithful family servant.    Here is where the story really begins as Yambo searches the contents of his childhood bedroom, his grandfather's study, the attic and a secret room.  He reads everything, trying to recover who he is and who he was.  His pylorus is continually tickled by a mysterious flame but he is unable to recall anything.  He reads his grade school composition books, comic books, and childhood novels. He reads newspapers and listens to records. Finally he realizes that it is getting him nowhere, that even reading everything that he read as a child was not going to reveal to him himself.   Yambo's time at Solara is the bulk of the book and poses some interesting questions and thoughts.  Even if Yambo could perfectly reconstruct his childhood reading, reading everything in order, the only thing he would gain was an understanding of the kinds of books he found fun to read.  Books it turns out are more than just words on paper.  In reading a book we bring to that book our life experience up to that point.  We bring our life as it happens while reading the book.  We carry the memory of other books we have read with us into the present book.    At first I thought how cool it would be to be able to read some of my favorite books again as if for the first time.  To feel that initial joy and delight of discovery upon reading Charlotte's Web or To Kill a Mockingbird or Great Expectations. But, as all readers know, the book might be the same but we are never the same. I might find that I don't like those favorite books at all, might find myself pondering, "what was I thinking? Was I crazy?"  How disappointing would that be?   And so the horror of Yambo's situation has been slowly creeping under my skin.  Yambo was pretty much doomed to failure from the beginning.  Even as he read his past his present moved forward.  Even if I can't remember reading Green Eggs and Ham when I was a child I cannot now reproduce what it was like reading it when I was five. I can enjoy the rhymes and silliness but it will never reveal to me who I was so long ago. Eco plays with the idea of what books can and cannot do, plays with what memory is and isn't, plays with past and present, and plays with identity and being. It is fun to watch him play. Along the way I learned quite a few new words, learned a thing or two about Italian history during WWII, and learned about quite a few comic book stories. Which brings me to Queen Loana herself. She doesn't appear until a little over halfway through the book. She is a comic book character who story is quite similar to H. Rider Haggard's She. I have not read She Bookman brought it home a few months ago and then I read a thorough summary of it, I can't remember where, not long after. So without having read the book I know the story and the story of the comic book Queen Loana brought it to mind. Loana disappears soon after she arrives in the story but comes back later for a finale appearance. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is not a blockbuster book. Nor is it a riveting page turner. It is, however, an enjoyable and thought-provoking read well worth your time. If you read Queen Loana be sure to stop by the annotation project wiki. The contributors have managed to annotate up through chapter 11 thus far and also include links to reviews of the book and Eco interviews. And check out this Eco lecture from two years ago that Andy at Molsekine Modality provided along with some very interesting comments about books as hypertext.