Sunday, August 13, 2006

Mysterious flames and the death of Mickey Mouse

In keeping with my own blogging tradition, I prefer to keep my post titles as obscure and opaque as possible. If nothing else, it forces people to read further, and increases my readership (it might potentially scare them away, but let’s not think too hard about that)

I finished reading Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, a few days back.

(Personal rant follows)

Snob warning – if you read Dan Brown and actually LIKED The Da Vinci Code, not finding his continual references to the science of “symbology” totally ludicrous and intellectually demeaning, I suggest you leave. Eco was the original, intelligent historical conspiracy theorist, and to see Dan Brown’s shoddy attempts gain the dizzying heights of international stardom only confirms that this world is full of intellectually challenged lemmings, with very few people actually appreciating that Eco did it first, and with much more class.

(Personal rant ends here)

Normally, every time I read Eco I get the sense that he bears the huge burden of history on his shoulders. All of his novels have very strong moorings in medieval & Renaissance Europe. Foucault’s Pendulum, while despite being set in this century, is all about three rather batty editors, who are also serious conspiracy theorists, reconstructing (or just constructing) an arcane plot to take over the world. His other novels, The Name of the Rose, The Island of the Day Before & Baudolino were all physically set in the Middle Ages.

Not this latest production, his fifth major work of fiction. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is very firmly set in the Italy of the twentieth century – potentially the early nineties, as opposed to the new millennium. As plot elements go, this is perhaps Eco’s most straightforward storyline. An ageing antiquarian book dealer wakes up in hospital, suffering from amnesia. His amnesia is of a strange variety, though. He retains his intellectual memory – i.e. he can spout Shakespearean sonnets and Dante’s poetry – but has lost his emotional memories – i.e. he can’t recognise his wife and grandchildren. In an attempt to regain this lost memory, he goes back to his ancestral home in the mountains up in Piedmont, where he spent several years as a child with his grandfather. While in this mountain retreat, he spends weeks poring over old family memorabilia, comic books, periodicals and old school notebooks that are carefully stored in various rooms of the house.

Eco uses this arguably tenuous plotline to begin what is his most graphic work yet. It was perhaps to be expected that a professor of semiotics like Eco would one day retreat back into the power of visual & aural symbols, drawing patterns, using popular culture to recreate the flavour of life in Fascist Italy.

For it is this period that Eco dwells on the most – the era from 1936 through to the end of the war, when Italy was firmly in the thrall of Il Duce, its son Mussolini. Eco recreates, through school book compositions, assigned school readings, popular radio broadcasts and children’s comics, the cultural imperialism of fascism in Italy, and how it pervaded every corner of Italian culture and lifestyle. He confesses in this interview that he doesn't view this novel as an autobiography, but rather as "the biography of a generation", but the work to which he contributed the most from his own personal memories.

Post colonialists would have a field day with this novel. Eco does not balk from discussing the less savoury aspects of a fascist Italy that had chosen to ally with Nazi Germany. There is anti-Semitism in the cultural produce, as is European superiority over other races (most strongly personified in the references to the war in Ethiopia & Libya). Perhaps the most striking example of how fascist Italy was so quick to demonise the “enemy” is a description of how Eco’s protagonist finds in his old comic collection a series of periodicals titled, Topolino, (a.k.a. Mickey Mouse) & Donald Duck. Once Italy had chosen to declare war on the USA, however, any endorsement of American culture was anti-national. The comic, as a matter of course, began to remove the American cartoons one at a time, “replaced by Italian imitations, and in the end – and this, I think, was the last, most painful barrier to fall – the famous mouse was killed”.

Eco’s writing is magical, in general. His power over language is startlingly strong. I am always amazed at how well he reads in English, and almost want to learn Italian so that I can read him in the original, because if the writing is that powerful in translation, what must it be to read him in his lingua franca?

Having said that, this was also the most difficult book of his to get into. The first fifty pages are the most tedious I’ve read so far from him. Perhaps that is not so unusual – his plots are often so convoluted and intense that the early parts of the story are always difficult to enjoy as he tries to set the scene. But as always, once Eco hits his stride around page 70 of The Mysterious Flames…the writing really takes off. Eco seems to really write from the heart in this novel – his characters are no longer intellectual constructs, as they were in a lot of his historical novels, where they operate in worlds imagined through his intellect. Yambo, the protagonist, seems to inhabit a world of Eco’s memories, those of someone who had been a child in fascist Italy, one who would have grown up listening to those songs on the radio that extolled the country’s men to die with a rose between their teeth.

The Mysterious Flames…doesn’t score merely because of the power of the writing, and the strength with which Eco manages to reconstruct the childhood of a young Italian boy in fascist Italy. His novel is perhaps scariest because it shows how easy it is for a nation to become enthralled with a single powerful leader, where nationalism becomes distorted into fascism, and where the demonisation of the other is most easily undertaken. And that alone makes it worth reading, especially given today’s rather complex geopolitical reality.

Keeping with the post-modernist theme, The Mysterious Flames of Queen Loana is a hive of intertextual cross references to popular culture. There is currently an online project underway that is seeking to cross reference and generate the most complete set of annotations to the novel than currently available. Check it out here.

Check out the author's website here.


Sunil said...

That is very nicely written and I will look for this book our library in Bologna. I like the long, convoluted phrases Eco turns out but generally speaking I don't have patience to stick with difficult to get into novels. Say if around fifty pages, I don't start getting it, usually I give up. But this time with your warning, I may persist! :-)

Azyr said...

Nice review but seriously, your background JARS. It even blocks about a quarter of the page (that temple thingy on the left).

Llsa said...

I first read 'The name of the Rose' about 10 years ago and took forever to finish 'Focault's Pendulum' because I wanted to really understand it. Will head to the library right away.............thanks for the great write-up.