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Or, what I read on my holiday, by Niall Harrison (aged 25 and one day).

I hadn't planned to read Eco on my holiday; ok, so I prefer my fiction challenging, but my one previous encounter with Eco, The Name of the Rose, was sufficiently intellectually daunting that I wouldn't normally consider him for a relaxing read (especially since I was only going for a few days). I'd planned to re-read Kim Stanley Robinson's beautiful and moving novel of utopia, Pacific Edge, something I've been looking for an excuse to return to for months, and a perfect vacation novel if ever there was one. But as fate had it, my flight was delayed, and browsing the WH Smith's bookshop at Gatwick's North Terminal I discovered a two-for-twenty deal on trade paperback editions. I ended up coming away not just with The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, but also Ian McEwan's Saturday; I only had time on the trip for the former, but it was time well-spent.

The novel starts with confusion. With a man, waking in hospital after an unspecified incident, who remembers fragments of something, but not his own name. His doctor doesn't immediately tell him--he wants to test the man's memory, work out the limits of his remembering--but soon enough we learn that the man is Yambo, husband of Paola, a sixty-something antiquarian book dealer who lives in Milan. The nature of his problem becomes clear, too: he has lost his episodic memory--lost everything related to him, all knowledge of his family and friends, lost the story of his life. All he has left is his semantic memory, the things he has learnt; the things he has read in books. The stories of others.

And since he's lived in and around books for the biggest part of his life, that's a lot of stories. It affects his behaviour; he has vast knowledge, and no experience. Yambo remembers words, but not sensations. He knows what others have said about the feeling of sun on skin, but he can't remember what it's like for himself. Everything he sees triggers connections. Half the time he talks in quotations and cliches, from literature high and low, new and old. In the absence of his own identity he becomes an archetype of the Protagonist, speculating what his story is and how he fits into it. His young assistant at his bookshop, for instance--what is his relationship to her? Surely not just an employer. Is he a mentor? A father-figure? A lover?

Before the incident, Yambo was fascinated by fog, as a device in fiction; now he can't remember why, and now he is lost in it himself. He tells his wife that he feels like a stuck record. He can learn everything new, but has no sense of his past; and, he tells her, 'you can only anticipate the future if you can call the past to mind.' So to rediscover himself he travels back to the place he grew up, to relive his youth as much as possible, by revisiting the stories he consumed then in the hope that he can blur the mental boundary between those narratives and his own. And sometimes, it works, or almost does. This is what he calls the luminous flame: something inside, like a tremor, like a revelation, like something outside his experience touching him (like, he says, the 2D beings in Edwin Abbot's flatland being confronted with a third dimension). But Paola is worried when, to entertain his grandchildren, he starts telling the stories as though they'd happened to him:
"If you're doing that to entertain the kids," she said, "that's one thing, but if not, then you're identifying too much with what you're reading, which is to say you're borrowing other people's memory. Are you clear about the distance between you and these stories?"

"Come on," I said, "I may be an amnesiac, but I'm not crazy. I do it for the kids!"

"Let's hope so," she said. "But you came to Solara to rediscover yourself, because you felt oppressed by an encyclopaedia full of Homer, Manzoni and Flaubert, and now you've entered the encyclopaedia of pulp literature. It's not a step forward."

"Yes it is," I replied, "first of all because Stevenson isn't pulp literature, and second because it's not my fault if the guy I'm trying to rediscover devoured pulp literature, and, finally, you're the very one, with that business about Clarabelle's treasure, who sent me here."

It's hard not to see the long middle section of the book, which consists almost entirely of reminiscence, as somewhat self-indulgent. There's a strong suspicion that Eco is, as much as anything, taking the chance to relive more than a few childhood memories of his own. But it's forgiveable, as are the points at which the momentum sags slightly, because the exploration of Yambo's personal and Italy's cultural history, all mixed up together, whether congruous to Eco's or not, is so often fascinating and vivid. The book-dealer's quest to recapture his youth is familiar and yet new; he sits, reading old school reports and newspapers, listening to old songs, trying to recreate a time past through patching together pieces of a culture gone, and imagining how ten-year-old him might have reacted. That many of his formative experiences in narrative turn out to be from pulpy adventure stories, or comic books, or similar sources, is strangely appropriate (and the consideration of those in their historical context is at times slightly reminiscent of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, albeit with a significant extra distance between the reader and the experience).

And this is where the book plays its trump card. The cover claims that this is an 'illustrated novel', and does so accurately. The text is decorated with pictures: book and album covers, magazine pictures, stamps, propaganda posters. Even a doodle of a melancholy-looking Napoleon, from the author's own hand. The cover gives some idea:

It is not in any sense a graphic novel; the pictures are not essential to the story, and they do not convey necessary information that is not in the text. But they do convey more information, enhancing the text, and bringing an extra level of richness to the proceedings that makes Yambo's quest more sympathetic and more comprehensible. Perhaps this is something Yambo himself instinctively understands--it's the idea that a picture can never be captured in words--and perhaps it's why he turns to images and sounds to help him understand the words cluttering his mind.

One image above all comes to obsess him, because it is more completely lost than any other: the image of his first love, Lila Saba, the girl who, it seems, dominated his thoughts and life for a good three of his teenage years, and possibly was a subconscious influence for far longer than that. The intensity of the search for a trace of Lila, and the revelations it brings, triggers a second, more serious incident, and in the final section of the book Yambo's situation reverses dramatically. No longer is he a mind trapped in the present, with no sense of the past. He becomes, fallen into a coma, or a dream, or maybe already dead, a mind with perfect recall, able to explore and understand the mysteries introduced by his earlier researches, one by one--including finally, he hopes, the memory of Lila.

Compared to The Name of the Rose, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona is easy going; as I said, good holiday material. Oh, there's still a strong vein of philosophical enquiry: questions about the interaction of high and low culture, about how memory informs our understanding of who we are. And about how children read and learn--how they distinguish between reality and fantasy; how they can internalise and deepen stories they are told, making them something more than they originally were. And there is still a sense of artifice to Eco's writing, a feeling that this story and these characters are no more than (in Yambo's term) paper memories, built specifically for this exploration of these ideas.

But there is also a stronger sense, even when Eco is at his most indulgent and digressive, that there is a story here that needs to be told (sometimes the digressions are stories unto themselves). It's the impetus that keeps you turning the pages in a good book, you want to find out what happens next, and it doesn't matter that here everything is out of order, fragmented and unclear. You want to find out how the pieces fit together. The style, too, is more transparent than that of Rose, because here Eco can let himself use a more relaxed tone, and he does so with considerable charm. It is, I suspect, even without having read any of his other novels, not Eco's best book. If nothing else, it does falter slightly towards the end, when Yambo's story turns out to be more familiar than we might have hoped. The obsession of first love is a well-trod path, and I don't know that this adds anything new; but if this book says anything about stories, it says that none of them are new. This is a case where you should let yourself enjoy the familiar.

Other reviews:
Robert Alter at Slate.
David Horspool in the Sunday Times.
Thomas Mallon in the New York Times.
Stephanie Merritt in The Observer.
Ian Sansom in the Guardian
Only you could tell us about what you read on holiday before telling us about what you did.
Hey, that's a complicated process. It involves getting photos off my phone and onto the web, after all. And approved by the people who are in them. It all takes time. :p
Hurry up. I'M BORED.
but still cute.
You'd think they wouldn't have to do it on every. single. entry...
I was thinking it would be incentive for you to post something faster ....
For that to work I'd have to believe that you won't do this on the next post. :p
You don't trust me? I'm hurt.
But presumably not surprised?
well, no.
I knew it! It's All About Niall!
totally untrue, baby

it's all about you - who's Niall going to post pictures of?
... Damn, you're smooth.
I do know my way around a boy ...
See, this is where my Not Trusting of the girlies comes in.
*adds ;-) to last comment*
When I'm bored, I pout.
Well, if you insist.

oh dear god in heaven
Too bad you found it a bit disappointing. I still highly recommend Foucault's Pendulum. I, for one, need to get back into my Eco reading, but already have a stack I'm making little headway with. I'm sure you'd recommend I read my existing dust-magnetizing Coalescent before taking another go at Eco. ;-)
I still highly recommend Foucault's Pendulum

Agreed. However, i suggest only reading every third word, in order to get through it more quickly.

Or, if you're up to it, reading words at positions given by a running sum of terms in Pascal's triangle to reveal the secret message.

-- tom
Tom, honestly, do you know how bad you are? ;-)