Review: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Posted in Reviews & Recommendations on November 6th, 2009 by Jeppe Grünberger
  • Title: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana
  • Original title: La Misteriosa Fiamma della Regina Loana
  • Author: Umberto Eco
  • Published: 2004 by RCS Libri S.p.A – Milano – Bompiani

I believe that there is a certain path that many people took in regards to reading Umberto Eco. It started out when they read the best-seller In The Name of The Rose, which has Eco’s first published work of fiction. Many people loved that book in spite of the very academic passages that sometimes seemed to sneak in between thrilling scenes of the main plot – or at least they loved the film with Sean Connery.  From then people would go on to read  Foucault’s Pendulum – the second published work of fiction by Umberto Eco. Foucault’s Pendulum is however not a particularly accessible book, one might even say that it can come off as slightly pretentious. Or very perhaps, depending on how many years you have spent studying philosophy, language theory and so on. And then I think many people sort of gave up on Eco. Not that he doesn’t sell well – he surely does, but have you noticed how suspiciously new and untouched many of his books look up there on the book shelves in people’s homes? It has seemed to me that Eco was in danger of becoming the sort of author many put on their shelves for looks rather than to read. But then, suddenly, this book called The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana comes out and it is time for everyone to pick up a book by Eco again, I promise.

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is about an ageing antiquarian named Giambattista Bodoni (named after a celebrated Italian typographer) who has a stroke and loses a vital part of his memory. He remembers every detail in history and anything he ever read very well, but he remembers nothing of his own life. He knows not his wife, and does not know his own name – yet he recites Plato flawlessly. In short, Bodoni carries with him the memory of his time, but not the memory of himself. He sets out to remember himself then, which he eventually tries to do by revisiting a reclusive house in the country that his family lived in during the years of the second world war. There he finds, undisturbed, the physical remains of his childhood memory in magazines, books, records and such. Bodoni then begins a journey through the history of his youth, but The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is perhaps more accurately a history of Italy itself through the period of fascism and war. Not a solely a factual history, but a history of the nation’s soul and what it went trough during those years – torn between nationalist fascism and joyful, almost naive Americanism. Throughout it all, Bodoni is chasing the story of his first love, a face that he cannot find but that he knows to have dominated him throughout his entire life.

First of all, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is just really well written and one of the most enjoyable reads in our time. In my opinion this is by far the best book by Eco (I haven’t read the The Island of The Day Before yet, though) when it comes to the feel, flow and strength of his language. In the other Eco books there is always a feel that the storyline is consciously interwoven with facts on history, philosophy, religion and linguistics in a way that divides the narrator into two separate personalities: Eco the dramatist and Eco the tutor. In The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana the narrator is a more natural and poetic instance than seen before. At the same time the image of Italy during this period of time is just painted marvellously and the use of colour prints of adverts, stamps, magazine covers and such printed in the book itself works really well. Its sort of a journey of critical nostalgia through a questionable time in Italian history, and its a journey you won’t regret taking. Of course, Eco couldn’t resist having a true academic as a narrator, as it gives him the options to reflect on the contents of his story, but it has never worked as well before as it does here.

This is a book that everyone can read, and that everyone should read, if it were up to me at least.