Interview with Umberto Eco, author of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

Umberto Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna and the bestselling author of numerous novels and essays. He lives in Milan.


Yambo, a sixtyish rare-book dealer who lives in Milan, has suffered a loss of memory—he can remember the plot of every book he has ever read, every line of poetry, but he no longer knows his own name, doesn't recognize his wife or his daughters, and remembers nothing about his parents or his childhood. In an effort to retrieve his past, he withdraws to the family home somewhere in the hills between Milan and Turin.There, in the sprawling attic, he searches through boxes of old newspapers, comics, records, photo albums, and adolescent diaries. And so Yambo relives the story of his generation: Mussolini, Catholic education and guilt, Josephine Baker, Flash Gordon, Fred Astaire. His memories run wild, and the life racing before his eyes takes the form of a graphic novel. Yambo struggles through the frames to capture one simple, innocent image: that of his first love.

A fascinating, abundant new novel—wide-ranging, nostalgic, funny, full of heart—from the incomparable Eco.

Q: The main character, Giambattista "Yambo" Bodoni, loses his memory; and, in an attempt to rediscover his past, he retreats to his childhood home. He sifts through decades-old newspapers and magazines, and rereads beloved stories and comic books from his youth. Yambo also listens to old records and replays the lyrics in his mind. What aspects of this novel are reflective of your life?
A: Since I tell about the thirties and the forties of the last century, I am remembering the period of my childhood and adolescence. It is obvious that the majority of the memories of those times are my personal memories, and that all the images of magazines, disks, and comic books are the images of my personal memorabilia. But I did not want to write my own autobiography, but rather the biography of a generation. In this sense I gave Yambo memories that were not mine. I tried to design the adult Yambo as a person different from me, and the child Yambo had experiences (like the one at the Gorge) that I did not happily have.

Q: Throughout the novel, you use various elements to illustrate Yambo's struggle with his memory loss. For instance, you use quotes and references about fog. How does this image tell Yambo's story?
A: Apart from the fact that I was born in the fog, my memory is full of foggy visions, and I adore fog (to such an extent that I collected an anthology of literary pages about fog, from Homer to our time); fog is an inevitable metaphor for the loss of memory. The irony is that Yambo has lost his own personal memories but not his cultural memory: Thus he is obsessed by words about fog, words of the authors he remembers, about something (the fog) of which he has no more visual memory, because it belonged to his private, personal life.

Q: Yambo also experiences a "crescendo of mysterious flames." And in fact, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana was a story that Yambo stumbled upon in the chapel. How does this "most insipid tale" typify Yambo's plight?
A: As for the mysterious flame, I must say that when thinking of this novel, before starting writing it, I decided that its title should be The Mysterious Flame of the Queen Loana. Why? Because I remembered the title of that old comic book, only the title, not the story, but that title evidently fascinated me when I was a kid. Once I stated that that had to be the title of my book, it came as a natural consequence that Yambo, when feeling the strange sensation of recognizing something of his past, thinks of that sensation as a sort of flame. The Mysterious Flame was in fact inspired by a famous novel, She, by Rider Haggard. Or worse, it was a plagiarism from Atlantide by Pierre Benoit, a French author who was accused of having copied the story of Rider Haggard. Being the copy of a copy it was not a great masterpiece. But I repeat, what fascinated me was the title and the same happens to Yambo. Having preserved only his cultural and public memory, he is obsessed by words; he has lost things (including the story of Loana) and has remained only with words.

Q: This novel is filled with meticulous detail—from the summaries of many books and the recollection of lyrics, to accounts of comic-book heroes and the description of assorted stamps. What did your research entail?
A: 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.

Q: You wrote The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana around handwritten letters, dusty publications, and books with beautiful covers. How do you feel about the emergence of an electronic—almost paperless—age?
A: 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.

Q: Brother William from The Name of the Rose (Harcourt, 1983), Baudolino from Baudolino (Harcourt, 2002), and Yambo from your most recent novel. Of all of your characters, which one would you like to meet, and why?
A: To meet? But they are all around me and we chat every day…

Q: When writing epic novels such as The Name of the Rose and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, where do your biggest challenges lie?
A: The real challenge is to make the writing process last as long as possible, always delaying the moment of the end. It is so beautiful to live for many years with your story, while nobody else is knowing what are you doing, and in every moment you can pick up an idea or an image from your everyday experiences… I cannot understand these authors who concoct a new novel every year. Where is the fun, then?

Q: You've published thirteen books with Harcourt, with genres ranging from historical fiction, juvenile fiction, and mystery and detective stories, to literary criticism, semiotics, and linguistics. How would you classify yourself as an author?
A: I am a scholar who during the weekends writes novels instead of playing golf.

Q: Living in Milan, Italy, you're a professor at the University of Bologna, where you head the communication sciences program, and you write an opinion column for the Italian publication L'Espresso. With On Literature—a collection of essays and addresses—being released last year and now The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, are you currently writing any more novels?
A: The answer is no for a very simple reason. Every book, when published, takes at least two years of your life. Like children, you must take care of them until the moment they can walk by themselves. After being published in a given language, a new book requests a lot of work for interacting with the translators, for reading and answering a lot of letters, to give interviews, like now. And the two years have not yet expired.
Numero Zero
The Prague
The Vertigo
of Lists
The Name of
the Rose
The Island of
the Day Before
History of
The Mysterious
Flame of
Queen Loana

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