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.

Review: The Shadow of The Wind

Posted in Reviews & Recommendations on October 28th, 2009 by Jeppe Grünberger

This is the first review of a book I add to this page. The idea is to have pages where I recommend books to those who may have similar taste as me. For a book to be featured here it has to have some sort of a unique quality that distinguishes it from other books in my opinion. My first review is as follows:

  • Title: The Shadow of The Wind
  • Orignal title: La Sombra del Viento
  • Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón
  • Published: 2001 by Editorial Planeta, Barcelona

The setting of The Shadow of The Wind is Barcelona, 1945, just after the second world war. The action takes place in the shadow of the Spanish civil war and, as we find out, in the shadow of many other things as well. The feel of Barcelona is that of dark, mysterious streets where the fates of people intertwine like the narrow, stony passages that hold the old quarters of the city together.

We follow Daniel, the son of an antiquarian, who discovers a book named The Shadow of The Wind in an enigmatic place called The Cemetery of Forgotten Books. This book is written by an obscure author called Julián Carax who no one seems to know much about. When Daniel discovers that his book is not only rare but may indeed be the last of its kind – the rest have been systematically been pulled off the market and burned –  he begins an investigation into the past of Julián Carax. An investigation that will bring him into the the dark past of friends and lovers surrounding a Julián Carax whose fate seems to have been decided when he was much the same age as Daniel himself. As the story progresses the two fates of Daniel and Julian become increasingly and ominously entwined, and Daniel soon finds that the fate of Carax and his book will bring him to a past of death and tragedy threatening his own life as well. For in Daniel’s Barcelona mistrust and violence linger always, barely hidden in the shadows – and lives fade suddenly and tragically.

The Shadow of The Wind is one of the most read-worthy books I have read. Zafón somehow manages to draw from so many genres, and still keep the dramatic structure not only intact but under the control of a master. The long lost Gothic genre is somehow conjured back from the dead to play with the hard boiled detective novel amongst others and it just simply works very, very well. Only rarely will you read a story as exciting and thrilling as this while still sometimes finding yourself stopping to wonder at the beauty of its language and its characters.

Zafón manages heavy themes of civil war, loss and love beautifully in a book that can be heart-wrenching, cruel and delightfully amusing at any given time. The language is enticing without becoming overly complicated, and the chapter’s lengths fit really well with bed time reading as well. I really can’t think of any reason not to read and enjoy this book. Its the sort of novel, that if an author ever publishes something like it, he can call his professional career an accomplished success no matter what else happened in it.

Carlos Ruiz Zafón.