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Review of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco

By Thomas Stewart
Eco, Umberto. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. Trans. Geoffrey Brock. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc. 469 pp. ISBN: 0-15-101140-0.

On the title page of this book (which will henceforth be referred to as MFQL) is the self-conscious subtitle "An Illustrated Novel." This is ultimately true, but for most of the novel the illustrations consist of found graphics, not drawings or photographs created for this work in particular. This is no idle observation, since the traditional and prevailing notion of an illustrated work is one in which the written text determines much of what is drawn by the illustrator. In the case of Eco's novel, there is a clear interplay between what real graphic artifacts have been found and what crosses over into the narrative as sometimes very specific plot points. In other words, there is evidence of popular and visual culture in WWII-era Italy constraining the development of Eco's story.

In this context, a full summary of the story is perhaps beside the point, and, in addition, it has been performed ably on the Web at the impressive Queen Loana Annotation Project which describes itself as "an attempt to use Wiki technology to create a thorough and accurate set of annotations to Umberto Eco's latest novel" (see References).

A limited summary of the novel is, however, necessary in order to trace the transitions of Eco's use of image in support of his storytelling (I believe this can be achieved without gratuitous spoilers – that is my intention, at least). The narrative highlights the interplay between psychology and history, and the role that each plays with respect to the other, mediated through individual and group memory, and registered in folklore and the arts. The protagonist of MFQL is Yambo, a rare books dealer who has suffered a particular kind of cardiac event, the result of which is a targeted amnesia. Yambo retains much if not all that he has read and seen, but next to nothing of his personal history, rendering friends and family strangers to him, and in turn retaining no knowledge of his past, his likes and his dislikes. In this state of amnesia, he is unable (or at least ill-advised) to return to work, and so his doctor and his family advise him to retire for the time being to his family's country home in Solara, where he finds filed away in storage (sometimes in frustratingly inaccessible chambers) a large collection of old books, comics, newspapers, sheet music, records, advertisements, elementary school notebooks, magazines, advertising posters, and even postage stamps from around the world. As he rummages through these items, Yambo discerns here and there the flickers of memory, sometime rising to the level of, as he terms it, a "mysterious flame," the knowledge that a strong and likely important memory is tantalizingly close. The novel is layered with mostly color plates of actual artifacts (sources of the plates are fully recorded at the end of the novel) of visual culture that could have been found in Italy around the time of World War II, when Yambo (and not coincidentally, Eco) was a boy.

In his search through these images and texts, Yambo does not pay close attention to his doctor's advice concerning rest and recuperation, so when he discovers something of enormous value to a book dealer, the palpitations overwhelm him.

At this point (section 3, titled OI NOΣTOI, "returnings," alluding to the Odyssey), the narrative shifts from a rich but systematic realistic sifting through relics of the past to a dream state in which Yambo himself doesn't know whether he is merely asleep, comatose, or dead. In this ambiguity, the reader is presented with images that extend beyond those in the physical collection at Solara, and the story itself moves to Yambo's boyhood and early adolescence. The memories here are lucid and sequential, and the consideration of fascist propaganda in the visual and musical popular culture of Mussolini's Italy are collected without falling into the format of a dry or didactic slide show. This is, in a sense, a historical adventure and a coming-of-age novella framed within a psychological novel.

Throughout the majority of the novel, the integrity of the plates selected is respected fully, that is, no enhancements or alterations are made to the images. This ceases to be the case as Yambo senses himself rising out of the fog of his altered state, memories begin to mingle and merge within him, and, in an evocative series of full-page montages and adaptations, bringing together in single panels and also in rapid sequence characters from diverse sources on a rising staircase with a black background, most of which had been presented in their original layout earlier in the novel. This surreal juxtaposition of external images, rather than personal memories per se, would seem to be intended as a reflection of the mind of Yambo trying to awaken, to return, as it were, and to reintegrate. This clash of disparate images, some fantastic, some from science fiction and adventure comics, and culminating with an unknown and unnamed saint's portrait from a prayer card, complete with halo, reassuring smile, and outstretched hand, beckoning Yambo to rise with him up out of the dark (or is it perhaps into the dark? Yambo's relationship with religion, specifically Roman Catholicism, is not without ambiguity (nor is Eco's)).

With the exception of the manipulations of pictures that occur toward the very end of the book, the overall relationship between the written text and the illustrative images in MFQL retain the narrative burden in the text, rather than capitalizing on the images' ability to advance the story on their own (cf. McCloud 152-161). That is, despite the visual beauty of the collected images and the comprehensive range of sources included, the feeling is consistently one of supporting diagram (as in a reference book), rather than of narrative synergy. This is not a criticism, however, because as noted at the outset of this review, MFQL is presented as an illustrated novel, not a graphic novel, and thus the division of labor for this purpose is quite appropriately asymmetrical.

Furthermore, throughout at least the first half of the book Yambo is engaged in an inductive process of meaning-making; his mental state is such that he is a blank slate, an empty vessel voraciously taking in images as he finds them. Eco has let it be known that the novelization of this material was not his initial intent, but that rather he had planned to use the material to support his own war-time memoir (Mabe 4). When a colleague brought out a book that was too similar in spirit to his own project, Eco was led to incorporate this documentary material into the now-fictionalized memoir. Whereas Eco most likely knew what these images meant to him, he allowed the images to co-create Yambo. Ultimately the experiment in illustration is successful and surprisingly practical – if one seeks evidence of this, one need only cover the pictures and read the text alone; one sees (post hoc) the contribution of the visuals clearly and immediately

References

Mabe, Chauncey. "Laughter in the Eco Canon Italian Writer's Erudite Works – and Conversation – Reverberate with Unexpected Delights." South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, FL) 5 June 2005: 4.

McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993.

Queen Loana Annotation Project. Ed. Erik Ketzan. 15 April 2006. <http://queenloana.wikispaces.com/>.

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