Wednesday 16 January 2019

Taking the Mickey out of the Mouse

Peter van der Kamp

The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana Umberto Eco Secker & Warburg, ?26.50 FOR over two-thirds of Eco's book, Thoreau's epigram applies: "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." To make drab existence bearable, we try to be the hero in our own novels. The only heroes with whom we can identify are the ones we read about in books, magazines and newspapers, the ones we see on screen and TV, and the ones we hear about, secondhand.

Thus, we model our personality on pure fiction: truth is not stranger than fiction, it is fiction. This is the gist of modernism; Joyce called it "the experience of reality", and explored its ramifications from his very first story, The Sisters through to Ulysses.

Until we reach a surprising denouement, the "diabolical power of paper" is also the drift of this remarkable illustrated novel, Eco's best-selling book since The Name of the Rose, now translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock (no easy task considering the host of quotations in various languages).

There is a lot of Joyce in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, which, as an inverted Bildungsroman, is particularly reminiscent of the early stories of Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The parallels are no coincidence: in The Middle Ages of James Joyce, Eco analysed his forebear's indebtedness to the medieval scholasticism which he, as a medievalist, is absorbed by, and which he presented popularly in The Name of the Rose. Both Eco and Joyce explore the meaning of Augustine's observation that we live in the three moments of expectation, attention, and memory. In his study of Joyce, Eco demonstrated the Irish writer's indebtedness to medieval catalogues - lists of things which through their associations and internal coherence try to create a new reality. The Mysterious Flame is full of such catalogues, lists of famous quotations, of "facts", of forms of torture, catalogues of stamps, old tins, cigarette boxes, children's novels, comic magazines - in fact, the catalogue of rare books which the hero's young and gorgeous Polish assistant, Sibilla, is devising forms a running thread throughout the first half of the book.

For two-thirds of the book, plot is a meagre device to list the stories, newspaper reports, music lyrics, comics etc that a life seems made of.

Eco does not seem too worried about the surface level of his fiction. In 1991 Giambat-tista (Yambo) Bodoni, a 59-year-old antiquarian bookseller in Milan, wakes up in a hospital bed, his episodic memory gone. He has "the memory of humanity, but not of a human being". He can recite poems he has read, but has forgotten his own name, and stares in apathy at the people around his bedside, including his wife Paola, who is a psychologist, and his daughter Nicoletta.

His personal life erased, Yambo goes on a quest through the "measureless caverns of memory" to reassemble his identity. The search leads him back to the family home in rural Solara, where he is looked after by Amalia, an old family servant. Here, in the attic and in the study of his grandfather, he wanders through mazes of remarkably well-kept memorabilia, reliving his childhood in the schizophrenia of fascist Italy. He realises that it is popular culture, rather than high art, which informs his being: he finds out that he called himself 'Yambo' after the author of adventure books, and that his daughter is named after the girl in Eight Days in an Attic. The technique of The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum is again adopted: The Mysterious Flame is another whodunit, but this time the detective hero is in search of himself. More than just the hero, he is the critic of his own novel. At every turn he approaches a revelation; however, the mystery of his own personality remains clouded in fog.

The fog itself is one of the motifs which seem of greater importance than the story proper. Part of that fog lifts in a typical Eco archetype, a hermetically sealed room behind a wall, covered with Rosicrucian imagery, built in haste by the grandfather to shelter deserters from the Black Brigade. It had been a chapel. Yambo finds the trap-door, and inside are more personal souvenirs from war-torn Italy, and his own comic books.

These explain which side he and his family were on in the war. Mickey Mouse Runs His Own Newspaper must have opened the young boy's eyes to the freedom of the press. L'Avventuroso features Flash Gordon, the first selfless hero Yambo ever encountered, who fights Ming the Merciless, a dictator with traits of Stalin and Mussolini.

Yambo's sexuality is first stirred by the pictures in these comics of stiletto-heeled, ample-bosomed heroines in slit, tight-fitting dresses, revealing shapely calves. In the ramshackle The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (a Tim Tyler's Luck album), Yambo finds the key to why he is a lady's man: Loana is a vamp, "sort of charming and sort of evil", who had been ruling over her people for 2,000 years and is still beautiful; the sound of her name had fascinated young Yambo enough to search for her real-life counterpart. Yet he never finds out if he did it with Sibilla.

His assistant shares a name with the Greek Sibyl, keeper of secret books, and with Lila Saba, the love of his life, whom he at the age of 16 admired from a distance, and who emigrated not long after to Brazil, where she died. Still, Lila's face eludes him. Then he stumbles in the chapel upon a rare find, a copy of Shakespeare's first folio. It is, literally, "the greatest stroke of his life", and the final one. What follows is the eternal present of a final coma. Yambo's is an opportune relapse, for his world of the night is filled with those emotive memories that had eluded him when he was awake, allowing Eco to answer his questions.

This final part offers the most traditional type of narrative in the book. Yambo relives his formative years, reviewing the first breasts of his life (Josephine Baker's), and re-experiencing Cyrano de Bergerac (Lila was his Roxane).

As a schoolboy, he befriends Gragnola, an anarchist tutor, who enlightens him that God is evil, and that Jesus was the only true enemy of God. Gragnola is an active member of the resistance, and involves Yambo in a perilous wartime adventure which explains his fondness for fog, and reveals that he really is the hero in his own book.

The novel ends on the ecstasy of death, a climax in which fact and fiction are fused, in exultant hyperbole, as fictional and factual character, one after the other, descends from the Neoplatonic stairway to heaven like film stars in a revue show.

The copious illustrations from comics, book jackets, record sleeves, personal photographs, stamps, and all kinds of ephemera give a remarkable semblance of reality to this multifaceted book, which is more a collection of recollections than a novel. But more than that, the grand finale, which is really the mother of all catalogues, turns the book into a parody of itself, and of the comics whose lasting imprint it has demonstrated. In the end, Eco does take the Mickey out of Walt Disney's Mouse.

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