Umberto Eco novels are always released to huge acclaim. Some are received better than others, but the release of his novels normally produces much fawning amongst the literati. ‘The Name of the Rose’ is considered to be a work of genius. I feel almost embarrassed to admit that I find his books boring, and to be honest, I’m not sure I understand them. I read the The Name of the Rose nearly twenty years ago. As I said in my review of ‘Warbreaker’ my literary consumption around this time consisted almost entirely of fantasy books. I’d just met this girl, who was a law student, and voracious reader of books, none of which contained dragons. In an attempt to impress, I decided that I should alter my diet.
Perhaps Eco wasn’t the best place to start. ‘A feast of intelligence and intellectual sparkle‘ my copy of TNOTR says. ‘Riveting (and) compulsively attractive‘, it was these sorts of superlatives that drew me in. From my position of twenty years of hindsight I can now see that Michael Connelly writes riveting and compulsive crime novels. Umberto Eco does not. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book, but it was bloody hard work. I read page after page, understanding each word, but struggling to understand why it was interesting. The same can be said of my next attempt at Eco, about ten years later. ‘Focault’s Pendulum’ is deliberately abstruse; it’s essentially a giant literary farce. Again there were bits I enjoyed, but mostly it was trawling through the book, reading on from a sense of duty rather than enjoyment. On the plus side, reader, I married her.
Yet, the blurbs and premises of Eco’s books continue to appeal. I own unread copies of Baudolino, The Island of the Day Before and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. The books sit on my shelves, waiting to be picked for the team, like literary nerds failing to attract notice of the captain. I pass them over time and again. So, I was pleased when somebody from my book club suggested reading ‘Mysterious Flame’ as I was finally forced to read it. (I sometimes think the whole purpose of a book club, should be to get its members to read those books they’ll never get around to reading on their own.)
The premise of the book is excellent, and the opening fifty pages sucked me in. Yambo has suffered a stroke, which has left him unharmed except in one very important way. He has no memories of anything personal. Dates from history he can remember. His wife and children he cannot. Before the stroke he was an antiquarian bookseller; after he can still remember titles and details of obscure tomes, but only if they are in no way relevant to his personal life. Articulate and intelligent, but without any memories of how he came to be who he is, Yambo sets out on a journey of self-rediscovery.
It’s such an elegant idea: – Is it possible to reconstruct yourself from your possessions, old photographs, or diaries? Can impressions of you, told by friends, you can’t remember, be reliable sources of information as to who you were? How much are we a product of circumstance? Do the stories of our lives tells us who we are? Yambo is thrown into turmoil once he discovers he used to be regularly unfaithful to his wife. Suddenly he wonders whether any woman who shows him kindness is a former lover. In particular, his young and attractive assistant. He can imagine that he may have had an affair with her, but how can he find out? He ends up tearing himself inside out, agonising of the possibility of having had an affair with someone, but having no way of knowing. It’s evocative and absorbing stuff.
If only the rest of the book had continued in the same vein. Instead it disappears into lots of mouldy old books. In order to reacquaint himself with himself, Yambo moves into his isolated ancestral home. The image is nice; an amnesiac searching through his old possessions, trying to discover the boy he was. The execution is turgid and more than a little self-indulgent. Perhaps if you are interested in a certain period of Italian history, this examination of social history through books, newspapers and magazines is interesting, but for most of the world’s population, it’s pretty dull. A trial by media, if you will.
I’m sure there are a number of people out there who would sniff at me for saying this, suggesting that I don’t have the mental faculties to fully appreciate what Eco has set out to do. They might be right, but it doesn’t matter how clever you are, if your book is so boring people don’t want to read it, it’s not a good book. My book group are a collection of educated people, who enjoy all manner of books, but nearly all of them struggled with the middle sections of ‘Mysterious Flame’. The only person in the group who said they enjoyed it, is Italian. – And there’s the rub. It’s nostalgia trip for Eco and those who reference the times he is talking about.
Part of my disconnectedness from the book comes, I think, from the fact it is a translated novel. A book so steeped in the history of a country, one that uses countless illustrations from journals printed in the native language, feels wrong when everything else is in English. I gathered no sense that Eco’s Italy was a real place. In the end, reading ‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’ felt like marching through a desert. Just putting one word after another, slowly reading my way to the end. I used to finish every book I started, but these days if reading becomes a chore, and remains so for more then a couple of days, it’s time to stop. For me at least the flame has been extinguished.