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Sunday, December 16, 2007

Umberto Eco - The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Compared to previous years, I don't think I've been able to read as much as before, some books took me months to finish (Neal Stephenson's CRYPTONOMICON, which I admired, but didn't think was as good as SNOW CRASH), while some took me only two or three days (David Mitchell's GHOSTWRITTEN, awesome book) or mere hours (Haruki Murakami's AFTER DARK, which I mentioned here).

So I felt some sense of accomplishment after actually completing Hemingway's SUN ALSO RISES and Umberto Eco's THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA in consecutive days last week. (I was reading the latter first, but felt that it was too dense, so borrowed the lighter SUN ALSO RISES from Ming Jin to read instead)

(Note that this is not really a review, but more of me chronicling some thoughts while reading the book.)

The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Loana

THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA is said to be Umberto Eco's last novel, and was the second novel I read from the Italian writer (THE NAME OF THE ROSE was my first).

Dude's works are often challenging to read because they are so dense and philosophical, and are often filled with references to other works of literature and history. Wasn't really expecting those when I first read THE NAME OF THE ROSE, I thought it would be a simple murder mystery!

Eco's novels are really philosophy dressed as fiction.

THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA is about a 59 year old antiquarian book dealer from Milan named Yambo who lost his memories due to a stroke. He can remember everything he read, but not his family and friends, nor his past or his own name. Quite a bummer. So Yambo tries to piece things together with his family and friends.

But REGARDING HENRY this ain't, as Yambo soon says bye bye to his loving family in the second act and immediately tries to recover his own memories by returning to his old home in Solara.

Finding through old vinyl records, childhood comic books, newspapers, fascist propaganda, books, magazines and other memorabilia, he was unsuccessful in regaining his memories. Though he managed to relive his own generation, and the society his father and grandfather lived in, Italians who grew up under Benito Mussolini. (We, as readers, do too, since this part is presented in text and illustrated plates, which, apparently, were from Eco's personal collection) This plotless part is rather slow and meandering, but somewhat enlightening.

Even so, it was at this point of the novel that I was overwhelmed by its sheer density (and ended up with headache), and chose to read something else instead (of course, it was also the same time I had to go off to the KURUS shoot).

After returning to this book, I endured the rather academic-like section which ended with Yambo having a great shock that caused a second attack. And the last third of the book is really a literary exploration of one's life flashing before him prior to death. In his coma, Yambo relives his memories, from his childhood to his teenage years, this is where we get a suspenseful and intense tale of wartime heroics and a sad love story, in which Yambo is desperate to chase after his memories of Lila Saba, the girl he loved as a student and ever after.

This is the part where the book becomes insanely cerebral and awesome... it just became an acid trip. The most apt description of this section is from GUARDIAN's review of the book.

Eventually, this rush of memory becomes phantasmagoric, an apocalyptic vision couched in the language of Dante and the Book of Revelation, in which all the figures of fact and fiction appear to him in a Busby Berkeley dance of hyperreality, climaxing in a horror for which the reader is unprepared.

To make it simpler, it's really like the last two episodes of NEON GENESIS EVANGELION.

And yes, the ending was heartwrenching and depressing. Totally left me in disbelief.

Won't spoil it for anyone who intends to read the book.

I have now started to read something (comparatively) lighter, David Mitchell's number9dream.

Anyone else who had read this book? Or any other works of Umberto Eco?

Oh, some excerpts from the book I liked. The self-inflicted agony that stem from unrequited love is depicted rather... accurately.

Probably hit too close to home.

Faith in the ungraspable allows me to close my penitential parenthesis. Life as a provident young man had promised me, as a reward, she who was lovely as the sun and pale as the light of the moon. But a single impure thought could snatch her away from me forever. The Unfound Isle, however, since it is unattainable, remains forever mine.

The final kiss was beautiful because Cyrano received it just as he was dying, and Roxane was thus escaping him once more, but that is precisely what I, now one with the protagonist, was so proud of. I was expiring happily, without having touched my beloved, leaving her in her heavenly state of uncontaminated dream.

With Roxane's name in my heart, all I needed was a face to go with it. The face was Lila Saba's.

(Yup, a Cyrano de Bergerac reference)

You are the most beautiful of creatures, I would never trade your broken eyes or your pallor for the beauty of all the angels in heaven! I would like to see her rise midstream, alone and still as she gazes out to sea, a creature transformed by magic into a strange and beautiful seabird, her long slender bare legs delicate as a crane's, and without importuning her with my desire I would leave her to her remoteness, the faraway princess.