When I read the back of the book jacket to Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, I was jealous.
“Yambo, a sixtyish rare-book dealer in Milan, has suffered a loss of memory – he can remember the plot of every book he has ever read, every line of poetry, but he no longer knows his own name, doesn’t recognize his wife or his daughters, and remembers nothing about his parents or his childhood. In an effort to retrieve his past, he searches through boxes of old newspapers, comics, records, photo albums, and adolescent diaries. And so Yambo relives the story of his generation: Mussolini, Catholic education and guilt, Josephine Baer, Flash Gordon, Fred Astaire. His memories run wild, and life races before him in a series of images, as Yambo struggles to capture one – that of his first love.”
What a perfect construct to create something both conventional and flexible, personal and universal.
It was one of those “I wish I had thought of that” moments. Like seeing or reading The Natural, Short Cuts, Pulp Fiction, Shrek or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.
And with a track record of Focult’s Pendulum, Baudalino and The Name of the Rose, there was much to look forward to.
Perhaps, to be fair, there is something lost in translation. But, sadly, it just didn’t deliver.
Yambo’s wife is, perhaps, one of the weakest and most obvious foils that I can recall in recent literature. Her “on the nose” expositions on semantic memory versus episodic memory, which began in the very first chapter with an explanation from the treating physician, are the literary equivalents of the hero-meets-villain moments in which either the villain explains to his sidekick or the hero explains to his co-captured love interest what the motive is, just to make sure the popcorn-eating audience is with us so far. She seems perfectly at ease with the fact that her husband has cheated on her repeatedly, doesn’t remember who she is, and, rather than showing any interest in re-discovering her, immediately leaves her to go searching through the old comic books in the attic of his parents’ old home; and is perfectly happy to assist him with morsels of personal history, neuroscience or psychology, whenever he reaches a roadblock in his journey through time to his own personal first-love Queen Loana.
For someone like me, who loves pop culture, Queen Loana illustrates the danger in relying too much on allusions to the shared or “semantic” world of books, comic books, songs, poems, people, television and film. Sentimental value to Umberto Eco (or Yambo) doesn’t necessarily translate into sentimental value for the reader, particularly anyone who is not of the same general age and nationality of the author.
Unless the reference itself has its own significance, standing alone, (which is only enriched further with personal, sentimental or historical context), it’s less likely to add than to detract from the overall effect.
For example, consider the following passage:
Still, Balilla aside, had I listened to “Penguin in Love” while reading Captain Satan, and, if so, had I imagined penguins in the icy North Seas? And as I followed Around the World in Eighty Days, had I seen Phileas Fogg traversing a field of tulips?
If you have never heard “Penguin in Love” or read Captain Satan,this likely means absolutely nothing. Around the World in Eighty Days is a little bit better, because the phrase itself has almost its own meaning; but who the hell is Phileas Fogg, and what does that have to do with a field of tulips?
A simple reference to “The Good Girl” likely means very little if you have never seen the movie.
“Are the other folks cows, chewing cud, til the hour comes when their heads roll? Or are they just keeping quiet, like you? Planning their escape…” has a meaning all its own. If you have seen The Good Girl, the significance may be enhanced. But there is significance, either way.
I’m still jealous of Eco.
But I’m not sure this closes the door on sixtyish rare-book dealers who lose their memories, and, searching through boxes of old newspapers, comics, records, photo albums, and adolescent diaries, relive the story of their generations, struggles to capture one image – that of their first love.
Maybe I’ll write something like that someday.
(Of course, I probably won’t.)