The Great Brain

Is Umberto Eco’s new novel about memory really postmodern?

Is the self that is conscious of being alive in the present meaningfully continuous with any version of the self in the past? That question has vexed many writers since the dawn of modernity, and Proust’s reflections in the opening section of In Search of Lost Time surely rate as among the most nuanced novelistic treatment of the problem. Now Umberto Eco, in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, his fifth novel, attempts to explore this issue through a fascinating narrative premise—the story of a man with abundantly lucid consciousness who is radically cut off from his own past. But there is an odd discrepancy between the fictional form of the book and the way it conceives the problems of memory and identity.

The novel invites us to see it as an absolutely up-to-the-minute artifact of contemporary literature. High and low culture are yoked together (though the latter becomes the lead horse). Visually and textually, the book is an extravagant palimpsest. Joining science with the culture of citation, it begins with a learned disquisition by a neurologist on different kinds of memory and their correlation with different spheres of the brain. The underlying assumptions about memory and selfhood, however, are unexpectedly traditional. The notion that identity is necessarily grounded in the past—an idea that invites some rigorous speculation—is taken as axiomatic. Love, somewhat surprisingly, turns out to be the very bedrock of selfhood (an idea that Proust, the supreme analyst of at least certain kinds of love, might not have subscribed to). And the issue of whether cultural texts actually define the self—the postmodern possibility the novel plays with elaborately—is, predictably enough, never resolved.

Yambo, the first-person narrator, is a 60-year-old antiquarian book dealer living in Milan who, as the result of a stroke, is suffering from an oddly segregated amnesia. He cannot remember his own name; his face in the mirror is at first a complete surprise to him; he does not recognize his wife; his personal past has been erased. At the same time, his textual memory is prodigious. He is perfectly in command of the dates and details of all sorts of historical events; as various sensory triggers set off associative circuits in his mind, he finds himself quoting substantial chunks of Dante, Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Rimbaud, Rilke, and numerous other writers, all in their original languages.

Such selective amnesia is not just a fictional hypothesis. My father was shell-shocked fighting in the American Army on the western front in World War I. As a result, his entire childhood and adolescence, including his two native languages, Rumanian and Yiddish, were wiped out. He did have memories from after the time of his arrival in the United States at the age of 15, or at least from the period of his recruitment. His American self remained entirely accessible, and all his life he spoke a pungent American English that would lead one to believe he had been born and bred in this country. What I think is interesting about his story in regard to the Eco novel is that my father never seemed troubled by the loss of his past. Indeed, he never let on to his children that he had lost anything, and we remained unaware of it till adulthood. My own strong impression is that he lived a happy, confident, energetic life, even through patches of adversity, during the half-century after whatever terrible event happened to him in the trenches of Europe. His story might argue that it is possible to assemble a perfectly viable self without a foundation in the past.

Our general cultural assumption, however, not only since Freud but at least since the Romantic movement, is that a vital connection with the past is essential to an integrated sense of self in the present. Eco does not question this view. For him, as for Wordsworth, “the child is father to the man,” and so he sets in motion the man at the center of his novel on a quest to exhume the child buried within him. Eco’s protagonist, who possesses only texts (“paper memory,” as he calls it), embarks on a project of recovering his lost past through texts. With the encouragement of his wife, Yambo goes off to the country house where he spent a good part of his childhood. In the attic there, he discovers a treasure trove of textual and material objects that he assumes must have enchanted him as a child—comic books, adventure stories, old magazines and newspapers (the period in question is the late ‘30s and early ‘40s), posters, movie stills, decorative cocoa tins, old records in their original jackets, and much more.

The bulk of the novel is devoted to Yambo’s obsessive exploration of these materials. Generous samples are deployed graphically in the text of the novel: pages from fashion magazines, illustrations from children’s books, frames from comic books—in sum, an overflowing cornucopia of Italian and international popular culture from these decades. The energetic playing with cultural artifacts virtually takes over the novel. Readers who do not have a taste for this kind of thing may grow impatient after a while with the accumulation of memorabilia in place of a memory, though I found it to be an absorbing exercise in cultural archaeology. Nonetheless, a certain ambiguity hovers over this enterprise: Is the cultural archaeology also an archaeology of the self, or has Eco lost the thread of his own initial question?

Yambo’s project, of course, proves to be a failure. As he observes at one point, what he succeeds in recovering is the memory of a generation, not his personal memory. This notion that a vast jumble of texts, high and low, might be constitutive of the self owes a good deal to a novel that has meant much to Eco—Joyce’s Ulysses. Yambo’s discoveries in the boxes in the attic are reminiscent of the wonderful catalogue of miscellaneous objects in Leopold Bloom’s drawer in the Ithaca section of Joyce’s novel. The mind as a patchwork of disparate texts is very much evident both in Stephen (high culture) and in Bloom (popular culture). Yambo, like Bloom/Ulysses, is a man trying to get back home, and the last section of the novel is appropriately entitled, in Greek, The Nostos, the term for Odysseus’ return to Ithaca. In the literally hallucinatory concluding pages of the book, Eco actually borrows Joyce’s term “psychopomp.” (It seems safe to assume that Geoffrey Brock’s fine translation faithfully reproduces the Italian equivalent here.) Eco’s own version of the psychedelic experience of Joyce’s Circe episode, where the word occurs, is set at the end of the book as an attempted resolution of Yambo’s dilemma.

But if we could really immerse ourselves in the juvenile literature that mesmerized us at the age of 8 or 10, would that in fact give us the key to our identity in the present? The resolution Eco proposes is played out in coruscating prose culled from the most extravagant pages of the stories and comic books Yambo once read. It is great fun, but it is not entirely convincing. Yambo suffers a second stroke: In the last lines of the novel it proves to be fatal. In what appears to be a coma, he burrows deep into his past and at last recovers appreciable segments of his childhood, including a crucial episode in which he leads resistance fighters down a treacherous gorge that he and his playmates had come to know inside-out. He also recaptures his first love, engrossing and unrequited, an experience from adolescence he thinks may have determined everything that followed. He cannot, however, recall the face of the girl named Lila for whom he pined, and that blank space in the center of his memory galls him. Perhaps the fantasy figure Queen Loana, who looms splendid in sexy comic-book attire at the end, is meant to be an imaginary counterpart to the forever-lost Lila.

It is a little odd that Eco should choose to make Yambo’s sense of self dependent on the investment in a love object. The notion is, of course, a very old idea, one that can be traced back from Humbert Humbert’s Lolita through the sundry fair ladies of Renaissance sonnet cycles to Dante’s Beatrice. But as a proposition about identity, it is a problematic one. It makes more sense to read the concluding section of the novel as a high-spirited spoof—a sendup of the whole artistic enterprise of seeking for a coherent sense of identity. There is, admittedly, a good deal of playfulness in the writing as the comatose Yambo moves through a series of stroboscopic images toward the final darkness. His last hours are taken up not with a triumphant recovery of the self but with a cascade of images, both graphic and verbal, from popular culture that carry us on an apocalyptic roller coaster presumably meant as parody. A fleet of rocket ships commanded by Flash Gordon clashes with a sinister invading fleet: “the stars of the heavens seemed to fall upon the earth, and rocket ships were penetrating the heavens and rolling liquefied like a book rolled up, and the day of Kim’s Great Game arrived.”

Yet one finishes the novel with a regretful suspicion that Eco, in the exuberant momentum of his delight in popular culture, has somehow lost his grip on the compelling questions of memory and identity, textuality and the individual self, that he laid out at the beginning. My own sense is that in order to explore these questions a writer has to develop a subtle sense of how character manifests itself in the fluctuating movements of consciousness, for that is how novels characteristically engage both philosophical and psychological issues. But this was never Eco’s forte. In Queen Loana, the protagonist is little more than the scaffolding for a set of ideas that turn out to be rather tired ones. Eco’s subject is certainly compelling, but it may require a different kind of novelist to realize it adequately.