Monday, April 23, 2007

Reading Umberto Eco

Living is like tearing through a museum. Not until later do you really start absorbing what you saw, thinking about it, looking it up in a book, and remembering - because you can't take it in all at once.
--Audrey Hepburn

For long, I avoided Umberto Eco. I thought he is for the intellectuals with creased forehead and not for people like me. But finally I could not resist and read two of Eco’s novels in a row: The Name of the Rose and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana . And I am surprised….The books are not what I thought they will be . Yes, they are full of learned, witty allusion, cupful of philosophy, psychology, history and literary criticism, mixed well with semiotics and post-modernism ..but then the flow of the story is unobstructed. There is a simple core as well in his books. They are, at heart, detective stories. And very fine detective stories that too. His first and best-known novel, The Name of the Rose, had a protagonist named after a Sherlock Holmes story, William Baskerville, who was looking for a murderer. The circumstances of the murder — a Benedictine monastery, medieval heresy and Aristotelian tradition — were merely Eco’s version of the study, Colonel Mustard and the lead-piping.

In The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, the object of the quest is the hero himself. Giambattista Bodoni, known to all as Yambo, wakes up in a hospital, and doesn’t remember who he is. A doctor explains that he has lost his “autobiographical” memory (where we store our personal experience) while retaining his “public” memory, hence the ability to reel off facts, including, for example, the fact that his own name is that of a typographer of the Napoleonic age. The books he has read, the films he has watched, the music he has listened to can all be summoned to mind, but he can’t recognize his wife and children, and has no recollection of his past. On the plus side, he remembers languages, everyday routines such as tying a tie or driving a manual-shift car and copious quantities of trivia concerning movies, books and poetry. In effect, he knows all the things that other people know, but none of the things that are unique to him. He very aptly describes this new state of existence as, "My life as an encyclopedia."
The first thing that made me curious to pick up the book was not its storyline but its title. The book borrows its name from a picture book whose luscious heroine Bodoni rediscovers suspended in ''an incredibly slipshod narrative that lacks both charm and psychology.'' Another interesting aspect of the book was its status of an “illustrated Novel” . Well, this is the first illustrated novel I have read ( If you don’t count “The Little Prince” and Roald Dahl’s books of course !)..and I love the pictures of comics, posters , advertisements popping up in between the text . The novel is illustrated with reproductions of dust jackets, magazine and record covers, and cartoon strips. This technique is appealing to people like me who, like Carroll’s Alice, don’t see the “use of a book . . . without pictures or conversations”, but although many are striking, beautiful, or occasionally (as in the case of the racist propaganda posters) shocking, they are also apt to duplicate the efforts of careful description that fill the novel.

In the beginning the novel presents rather dull display of the disconcerting effects of a lifetime of reading, crowding in on an otherwise blank mind. But among the canonical quotations and references are phrases that seem to hint at more personal associations, for our hero. But the exact association he fails to make.

Taking his inspiration from Citizen Kane’s Rosebud, Yambo decides to spend several weeks in his old family home, in an attempt to discover whether any of the familial artifacts will help him to recover his memory. He rifles through boxes of old schoolbooks, newspapers, photo albums and diaries, and in the process, begins to relearn who he was. However, as author Umberto Eco points out, memory can be elusive at the best of times, and Yambo's task takes on surreal overtones as he redefines his life through the pop culture of his formative years. The chapters that follow are an initially random, then more orderly immersion in the adventure stories, magazines, comic books, newspapers, and religious and political tracts of his boyhood and adolescence.
In the novel's second section, set in what in effect becomes a museum of Yambo's childhood, the narrator begins to feel stirrings of who he is - but it is little more than a flame of excitement at the description in a pulp novel, a panel in a comic book, or the chorus of a popular song. Caught between the fog of his amnesia and the flame of his identity (or maybe it's the other way around), always with an eye on his blood pressure, Yambo reads his way closer and closer to the reality of who he is. Up and down the purgatorial corridors of memory he wanders. And wanders. Just when the reader may be tiring of all the days in the attic and the long catalogs of materials sorted through, the novel swings into its stunning third act, and all Yambo's homework pays off.
As much as anything, in its more serious moments, The Mysterious Flame is concerned with the foggy distinctions between fantasy and reality, between childhood and adulthood, and, as Yambo sometimes sadly sees himself, a lifetime of reading versus a lifetime of living. What Yambo finds at the end of his days, is that - fact or fiction - his life was made all the richer by his moving between those two ways of understanding the world, or, as he puts it, out of his books, "To build a world that is all mine." A world like that, suggests Eco, might be something very much like paradise.

Now I look forward to reading other books by Eco.

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