The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Loana
Secker & Warburg, 17.99
Umberto Eco's first novel, The Name Of the Rose, managed to be both a brain-teaser and a page-turner. His latest fictional foray is a ponderous affair that succeeds at being neither.
The narrator wakes up in hospital. He has had an accident and has lost his memory: his mind is instead filled with a swirl of fragmentary literary quotations.
He turns out to be Giambattista Bodoni, a 60-year-old antiquarian book dealer. He sets out to rediscover all the things he once read, and which have made him what he now is.
Bodoni retreats to his childhood home in rural Italy and opens up old trunks and cupboards where his juvenile reading matter and other junk lie stashed. He then trawls through it all for the benefit of the reader.
"There were two versions of Jacolliot's Les ravageurs de la mer, the French original and Sonzogno's Italian edition, retitled Captain Satan. The engravings were the same, who knows which I had read."
There are pages and pages of this kind of thing, enlivened only by the illustrations that are reproduced from the books in question.
While it might make for an interesting case study in semiotics, as a novel it is a dud. Various narrative possibilities are dangled before the plot-starved reader, but all prove red herrings.
Bodoni has a young assistant named Sibilla, but she vanishes before anything interesting can develop. The same happens to the endearing crone who looks after the house he stays in.
As Bodoni's excavations continue, we see comics and other items from the time of Mussolini. But Eco is caught between two conflicting urges: fact and fiction. He could have written an interesting book about 1940s popular culture, or he could have written an entertaining novel about an amnesic man. He tries to do both at the same time, and each negates the other.
Bodoni has another spasm which suddenly gives him total recall. He remembers the war, when he and a partisan friend rescued some Russian soldiers and abducted two Germans whom they then killed. Yet despite the drama, the writing reads like a banal adventure. Eco seems to care more in this book about literature than about life.
Again and again, he backs away from the human possibilities of his material in favour of an intellectualised, inter-textualised brainstorm that fails in the end even to seem particularly clever. A theme of fog that recurs throughout the literary allusions suggests some genuinely close reading of the source texts, but for the most part, a similar effect could be achieved from a random trawl through any library.
The book is set, for no obvious reason, in 1991. I suspect the manuscript has lain in Umberto Eco's drawer for over a decade, and has been coaxed out by his publisher. It should have stayed where it belonged.