Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona

Knocked out another book from the postmodern reads library. Umberto Eco'sThe Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona. Quite the unusual book.

I was looking forward to reading this one because like the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, I had a feeling I would enjoy Eco's writings more now that I was a little older. When I was a teenager I tried to read In the Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum and could not get through either of them.

In Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book The Black Swan, Taleb opens the book talking about Umberto Eco and his vast personal library.

The writer Umberto Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and non dull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with 'Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?' and the others - a very small minority - who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

As someone with a vast collection of baseball books (largely unread), I love and appreciate the idea. Many people think that with my love for baseball history, I should be able to rattle off all sorts of trivial minutia. It is precisely because I have no wish to remember (or necessarily learn) everything about baseball that I maintain my library.

So that's why I was looking forward to this book. I ended up enjoying it. It is really the same story told twice. The main character and narrator, Yambo, is a rare book dealer. The story begins with him emerging from a coma and finding that he has no personal memory. He can remember virtually everything he has read but cannot recollect anything about himself or his life.

His wife suggests he go to his boyhood home (which has been cared for by a tenant farmer) to relearn his life. Yambo goes through piles and piles of comics, magazines, records and other media and from these materials he attempts to build memories of his previous life. When he discovers some poetry he wrote in high school, he talks to his best friend and Yambo finds that he longed for a girl in high school. Piecing together other evidence he begin to believe that his entire life was spent trying to find or find a substitute for this girl, who, it turns out, died right after high school. Yambo, shaken at this revelation, comes completely undone when he discovers a First Folio of Shakespeare which puts him into another coma.

In this second coma, Yambo actually is able to recall his memories and so the story is told again, correctly this time. Many of the assumptions Yambo had made were wrong and connections he failed to make now become clear to him in his comatose state. The truth about his feelings for the girl also become clear.

What makes this postmodern, I guess, are a couple of things. First, the story is essentially told twice. Once incorrectly, once correctly. Second, Eco has dozens and dozens of illustrations depicting the materials that Yambo discovers in his childhood home. Covers of books and records, lyrics to songs, cartoons. All of it reproduced in full color. It gives the novel a sort of academic feel to it, as if one was studying Italian Pop Culture of World War II. All of this is pretty neat.

I can see a lot of people being unsatisfied or even confused by the ending. It's not exactly clear. It can also be a little frustrating to have read half the book and then find that very little of it is true but hey, now that you're here, let's tell you what the truth is. I liked it but I don't know that I can really recommend it on a general basis.

1 comment:

--Transfixed Ingress said...

Glad you're back. That wasn't much of a hiatus. Thankfully.

I'm reading a Banana book. Eh. What can I say. It is about bananas.