By Cheryl Morgan
At the beginning of Umberto Eco’s The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana the novel’s central character, Giambattista ‘Yambo’ Bodoni wakes up in hospital. It appears that he has suffered a stroke. He cannot remember any of his life before he was taken ill, but he can remember every book he ever read.
The doctor asked me what first came to mind when I woke up. I wrote: "When Gregor Samsa woke one morning, he found himself transformed in his bed into an enormous insect."
When Dr. Gratarolo asks Yambo his name, the patient replies, "My name is Arthur Gordon Pym." Realizing this is wrong, he tries again: "Call me… Ishmael?"
If you are beginning to think that this plot device is a transparent excuse for Eco to show off his vast erudition then you would be quite right. Eco spends an awful lot of time talking about books in Queen Loana. But he does so in interesting ways, and the memory loss excuse is put to other, profitable, uses as well.
Yambo, it turns out, is a bit of a cad. His best friend tells him that he has had a string of affairs, though embarrassingly Yambo can’t remember any of the women involved, even when he encounters them in the street. Because the book is written from Yambo’s point of view, this philandering is viewed by his long-suffering wife, Paola, and his two adult daughters, as further evidence of his substantial masculine charm. What they actually thought of him is not recorded.
However, Paola clearly retains some affection for Yambo and, being a psychologist, she tries to help him regain his memories. At his suggestion, he returns to his childhood home in a country village where, by one of those handy coincidences that are allowed to happen in mainstream novels but would probably be greeted with derision in SF, all of his youthful possessions have been carefully preserved by a faithful old woman retainer who appears to be the Italian equivalent of a Mummerset character.
This is where the book gets interesting, for two reasons. The first is that, being a fairly normal boy of his time, Yambo spent a lot of time reading comics and adventure books. Thus Eco stops talking about Kafka, Poe and Melville and instead turns his attention to the great pulp heroes of the early 20th century. We get to learn about Sandokan, Fantômas, Mandrake the Magician and, of course, Flash Gordon. Even the Queen Loana of the title turns out to be a She-like character from a pulp adventure story. Because he can get away with this sort of thing, Eco has spent a lot of time researching book covers and the like, and fills his novel with color illustrations of Yambo’s childhood delights.
The other area of interest is that Yambo does not grow up in the home of pulp literature, the United States, he grows up in an Italy that is succumbing to the lure of Fascism and is about to enter World War II on the side of Nazi Germany. This results in a certain amount of alternate history writing on the part of Italian publishers. Buffalo Bill, we learn, was not really called William Cody, he was an Italian immigrant called Domenico Tombini who was, coincidentally, born in Romagna, just like Mussolini. Only Mickey Mouse, it turns out, was so closely associated with the hated Americans that he had to suffer an unfortunate and terminal accident rather than be reclaimed with Italian parentage.
The book paints a convincing tale of how Yambo’s family, whilst opposed to the Fascists, are unable to do much positive with their political convictions as they are in no position to take to the hills with the partisans. The best they can do is to prevent young Yambo, a voracious reader even then, from taking everything he sees at face value. For example, the adult Yambo discovers copies of a magazine called Defence of the Race:
They contained photos that compared aborigines to an ape and others that revealed the monstrous consequences of crossing a Chinese with a European (such degenerate phenomena, however, apparently occurred only in France). They spoke highly of the Japanese race and pointed out the unmistakable stigmata of the English race — women with double chins, ruddy gentlemen with alcoholic noses — and one cartoon showed a woman wearing a British helmet, immodestly covered with nothing but a few pages of the Times arranged like a tutu: she was looking in the mirror, and TIMES, backwards, appeared as SEMIT.
As he grows up, little Yambo learns what the word ‘Jew’ means, and what happened to that nice Signor Ferrara who taught him to play marbles.
Inevitably, however, the book returns to the subject of sex. We are, after all, dealing with an old man reminiscing about his childhood and adolescence. I mean, why would a young boy read Flash Gordon comics if not to see pictures of Dale Arden and Princess Aura wearing those strange, futuristic clothes that seemed to involve so much less fabric than was worn by one’s mother and her friends.
Ultimately The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is embarrassing, as only old men looking back on their childhood can be. But before it gets to that stage the book gives us a fascinating (and hopefully not too glamorized) look at life in wartime Italy. It also treats pulp fiction with a warmth and affection that must have left many mainstream critics cringing. For that I can forgive Eco a lot.