My first encounter with Umberto Eco was through Foucault's Pendulum, which I found a difficult if compelling read. You might think of FP as the book Dan Brown might have written had he been better-read and less interested in…well… readers. It is a thinking person’s DaVinci Code… a very well-read and patient thinking person.
I struggled to keep my head above water, and mostly failed.
Eco is vivid and brilliant. He also, in my view, sometimes edges
toward the pedantic, unable to suppress the semiotic detail that cascades
through what must be tightly integrated academic and novelistic lives (Eco is a
professor of semiotics at the
The word semiotics is, as far as I understand it, is the philosophy of communication. In FP, the historiography, symbolism, and dramatic narrative were so serpentine as to overtax my sparse understanding of the two millennia of the history of Christianity. I couldn't find traction in the story, though certainly it was a memorable confusion. His latest novel, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, is far more accessible to this casual reader, perhaps because the semiotics is distinctly 20th century, and in general more familiar.
The book is built around a middle aged man, Yambo, who has lost his personal memory to a stroke, but retains the public, shared experience of literature and daily living (I can't say whether this is a common mode of amnesia, but the device is integral to the book). The narrative describes his search for his own past, and his rediscovery of his family's history in fascist Italy of the 1930’s and 40’s.
Much of the book involves the protagonist's reconstruction of self in the long-closed-up house of his upbringing, where he recovers parts of his identity, including his intellectual, sexual, and moral coming of age.
Loana uses graphic
devices uncommon in books outside the so-called 'graphic novel' genre. There
are hundreds of color images interspersed in the text. These pictures remind us
why the cover-art of online book catalogs are so important, evoking as they do
our history with content we’ve known, or acting as visual trigger to suggest
expectations in content we don’t. It is a surprisingly engaging device.
Eco has given us a novel of a high intellectual order that explores the origins of self and morality, and illustrates the importance of personal and cultural memory, and how bereft of identity we are without both. It is also a good story, well told; I wanted to find out what happens.
Image: The elevator ride to the Top of the Rock (Rockefeller Center) in New York City. April, 2006, by the author