By any standard, Umberto Eco is a bookish man. His townhouse in Milan resembles a private research library that specializes in early printed books; his country house near Rimini serves as a warehouse for books. His weekly column in the Italian newspaper L’Espresso is as often concerned with books at it is with more recent communications media such as radio, television, and the Internet. His scholarly books on language, literature, and culture are invariably concerned with other books. His first five novels all have bookish heroes.
In Il nome della rosa (1980; The Name of the Rose, 1983), a literary sleuth must work out the classification system of a medieval monastic library. In Il pendolo di Foucault (1988; Foucault’s Pendulum, 1989), editors get caught up in a conspiracy that they have largely created with their choices of titles for a New Age series. In L’isola del giorno prima, (1994; The Island of the Day Before, 1995), an early explorer trying to measure longitude is comically hobbled by the book learning of his time. In Baudolino (2000; English translation, 2002), late medieval explorers seek the eastern kingdom described in a famous literary hoax. It should be no surprise that Eco’s protagonist in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is a man made of books.
Giambattista Bodoni (whose name is that of an eighteenth century Italian type designer) awakens in a fog. Yambo, as he is known to his friends, is recovering from a medical “incident” and has developed an unusual form of amnesia. He does not know his name and recalls nothing from his previous life, but he remembers everything he has ever read. His mental fog is also linguistic, a pastiche of lines about fog in several European languages. In the first chapter alone, the English of Charles Dickens, the French of Charles Baudelaire, the German of Hermann Hesse, the Italian of Eugenio Montale, and the Spanish of Federico García Lorca all intertwine with words of famous authors and facts from encyclopedia articles. Yambo’s attending physician, Dr. Gratarolo (whose name is that of a sixteenth century physician and alchemist), suspects disturbance in the area known as Broca’s brain, which governs the use of language.
Yambo’s partial amnesia makes for an unusual first-person narrative. “Apparently I am well-off,” he notes on returning home in chapter 2. When he learns that he has had extramarital affairs, he agonizes over his relationship with Sibilla, the beautiful young assistant at his antiquarian bookshop. When he is attracted to a stranger in the street, he can only guess what their relationship has been. Meanwhile his wife, Paola, has taken charge of his recovery. A clinical psychologist, she sets small tasks for him to perform. One day they visit a street market where they find a reproduction of one of the first Mickey Mouse comics published in Italy. Without opening the book, Yambo summarizes the story, convincing Paola that his memory is not entirely verbal. She decides that he should spend time alone at their summer house in the Italian Piedmont, where he still has the books from his childhood.
Like a sonata, this novel is divided into three parts. The first part, just summarized, is titled “The Incident.” The last is oi nostoi, Greek for “The Return” or “The Return Pain,” the sort of “nostalgia” that Odysseus experienced on returning to Ithaca in Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.). The middle portion, which contains ten of the novel’s eighteen chapters, is “Paper Memory,” Paola’s name for her husband’s strange condition. Yambo’s summer house once belonged to his grandfather, a dealer in used books, and Yambo lived there as a child during World War II. The grandparents’ living space has been sealed off, like a shrine, but a loyal cook and housekeeper named Amalia has kept it clean and orderly.
As he explores...
(The entire section is 1638 words.)