I explore media in transition. My research encompasses film, video, print, digital arts, and the web. I'm interested in what artists and writers are doing and in what critics and scholars are saying.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Recollecting "The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana," a novel by Umberto Eco

After listening to Umberto Eco discuss his latest novel with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s “Bookworm” last month (aired in LA August 25 and accessible online), I ordered The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana from my local library right away. Since my knowledge of Eco’s work had been limited to his theoretical writing on semiotics—and to the film based on The Name of the Rose—I was curious to see for myself how this scholar crossed over to fiction, especially with a personal narrative that disinters both private and public archives to chronicle, in Eco’s words, the “dismantling of self,” and to document, in Silverblatt’s words, “memories of things lost.”

An amnesiac who has lost only his autobiographical memory but has retained his encyclopedic cultural memory after an apparent heart attack, Yambo, the sixtyish protagonist who’s earned his living as an antiquarian book dealer, remembers almost everything he’s ever read since his childhood in Italy during the 1930s and ‘40s, the period during which Mussolini rises to power and suffers defeat and Hitler masterminds the Holocaust. Hopeful that contact with his “paper memory” will help him reconstruct his personal history and thus restore his identity, Yambo retreats to his family’s country home near Milan. Passed down from his grandparents to his parents and then to him, the large house has been kept up by Yambo’s old friend Amalia, a former tenant farmer who lives there by herself; she looks out for him during his stay. Free to wander around this Memory Theatre where so many traces of his childhood are stored, Yambo navigates his way through mysterious spaces and secret passageways, uncovering on his expeditions a wealth of official, popular, and personal texts, including family letters and his own writing. He realizes how “schizophrenic” his early education was: a confluence of Fascist propaganda, Catholic dogma, silly radio shows, contemporary music and dance, children’s adventure stories, fantastic comic books, Hollywood movies, and assorted memorabilia. Although the archive Yambo uncovers doesn’t restore his personal memory, it does provide him with pleasurable diversions and prompt him to imagine the life he might have led; nevertheless, the identity he’s searching for eludes him until his condition changes in Part Three, the final section, and even then more questions are raised than answered.

Illustrated throughout with colorful reproductions of many texts that Yambo finds, and interlaced with citations from a range of “high” and “low” sources (all of which are credited at the end), The Mysterious Flame assembles a Cabinet of Wonder (Wunderkammer) for Yambo’s—and Eco’s—generation to ponder and, in some cases, to enjoy, a form of collective memory inspired by the world of a young, middle-class, Italian boy who comes of age during the war years. (I kept wondering what a girl’s version might disclose, or a Jewish child’s.) For me, an interesting tension develops between Part Two, which chronicles Yambo’s encounters with this Cabinet of Wonder as he rummages through his childhood home, bereft of his personal memory, and Part Three, which abruptly switches to another storytelling mode after Yambo has a second incident and lingers in a coma, his memory supposedly restored (there’s room for doubt). When viewed together, these attempts to shape an identity underscore the politics of both cultural and personal memory and reinforce the inseparability of the two. That said, I’m fascinated by the variety of archival materials reproduced in The Mysterious Flame, many of which are from Eco’s own collection, including montages he’s made (documented in credits).

In an interview that’s posted on the publisher’s Web site (Harcourt), Eco describes his research methods for the novel:

“During my adult life I have retrieved many memorabilia of my childhood. I no longer had my early schoolbooks but I managed to find them again, exploring flea markets and old bookstores. Thus, most of my images come from my personal collection. As for the rest, I spent at least two years rummaging and browsing through bookstalls. I did not have to discover anything, only to recover. I kept in my mind vivid images of all the items of my childhood, and I had only to retrieve them again.”

As Eco notes, he also conducted research on the Internet:

“Many of my old papers were recovered through the Internet. For instance, it is through the Internet that I succeeded in reconstructing the stamp collection I had put together at the age of twelve. It would have been impossible to retrieve all these stamps except by surfing the Internet. And on the Internet all these memorabilia were advertised as real objects that one could buy. Thus you see that the Internet is not always substituting paper, sometimes it can be a way to salvage it.”

The Internet has been linked with The Mysterious Flame in a number of ways, by Eco himself, by readers, and by critics. The MFoQL Annotation Project demonstrates one way to examine the novel collectively. It’s described as “an attempt to use Wiki technology to create a thorough and accurate set of annotations.”

Village Voice critic David Ng shifts the focus to new media when he argues that The Mysterious Flame may be Eco’s “most hypertextual novel to date—a sprawling network of mnemonic associations ripped straight from a highly troubled brain.” As Ng explains, “In the Eco-ian universe, books aren't merely stand-alone islands to be traversed in linear fashion; they are nodes in an exponentially expanding extranet. To read one book, you sometimes have to pass through several others, accumulating countless references and subtexts along the way.” According to Ng, Eco claims to have structured his latest novel “to mimic the free-associative behavior of electronic navigation” (“Eco and the Funnymen,” Village Voice, July 5, 2005).

During his conversation with Silverblatt on “Bookworm,” Eco relates the concept of The Mysterious Flame to two historical phenomena associated with the Renaissance: The Memory Theatre and the Wunderkammer, or Cabinet of Wonder. Although he doesn’t comment on digital appropriations of these models, many writers, artists, theorists, and curators have:

Regarding Memory Theatres, see “The Renaissance of the Theatre of Memory, an informative article by Peter Matussek (2001); Giulio Camillo e il Teatro della Memoria, maintained by Giuseppe Zito; Memory Palaces, by Carl Malamud; and "Hypertext and the Art of Memory," by Janine Wong and Peter Storkerson (Visible Language, 31.2:1997).

On Cabinets of Wonder, see the New York Public Library’s extensive list of links; WonderWalker: (A Global Online Wunderkammer), an art project by Marek Walczak and Martin Wattenberg (2000); World Wide Wunderkammer: A metaphor for mapping social spaces (review of WonderWalker, by Malamud and webchick); and The Online Museum-Archive-Library of Wonder-Curiosity-Art, by curator Steve Dietz (2000).

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