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Desert Solitaire
by Edward Abbey

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Umberto Eco
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is the story of Yambo, a Milanese bookseller who loses his memory by way of a stroke. Or rather, he loses his personal memory, but retains perfectly the text of every book he’s ever read. What follows is a story of personal reconstruction through texts — a process of correlation among personal history, national history, and literary history. It’s a fun approach to storytelling, and (as with most of his stories) a chance for Eco to flex his personal concordance of books and language and to imagine a character solely through an intersection of bibliographies. (It’s something like David Hume’s definition of personal identity, except here the sense impressions are all textual.)
Italian Schoolchildren
But it’s also a reconstruction of modern Italian history, particularly that of the second world war and the rise and fall of Italian fascism. My primary and secondary education were sorely lacking on the subject. I was taught WWII as the war against the Germans in Europe and against the Japanese in the Pacific. Italy was part of the Axis, but always as a footnote. We learned the name of Benito Mussolini, but not what he stood for. We learned the term ‘fascism’, but not why it appealed to the Italians. We only knew that the trains ran on time.

Eco’s story is particularly poignant as it portrays Yambo’s primary school education in fascist Italy — the rampant patriotism, the grave directives to serve one’s country, the drive to convert boys into proud soldiers. Like so many American children mindlessly mouthing the pledge of allegiance every morning, Yambo writes patriotic essays to please his schoolteachers, but which nonetheless constitute a portion of his sense of self. His story about his childhood service to the socialist resistance sounds almost like a justification; not just of Yambo, but of the Italian people. Not all of the Italians were fascists; the fascists were the villains, the anarchists and the socialists the heroes. In reconstructing one’s personal history in light of the fascists’ defeat, how could the narrative be otherwise?

Where The Mysterious Flame comes unglued is when Yambo suffers his second stroke and his personal history comes back to him in an ever-accelerating collage of images. Sadly, this is also where Eco’s storytelling comes unglued. While masterful with bibliographic storytelling, Eco falls a bit short while working with image association. So the grand finale falls a bit flat; a disappointing cap to an otherwise delicious novel.