A man wakes up from a coma with no memory of who he is. It's a well-worn plot device - either classic or clichéd, depending on the skill of the storyteller - that has played a pivotal role in the careers of everyone from assassin Jason Bourne to Kermit the Frog.
Meet Giambattista "Yambo" Bodoni, an antiquarian book dealer who can remember every poem and novel he's ever read but can't recognize the faces of his wife or daughters. Since Yambo is the creation of Italian author Umberto Eco, he's very well read indeed.
It's a crisis that should inspire feelings of panic or pathos, but since Yambo displays a breathtaking lack of curiosity about either the woman with whom he's spent 30 years or the two daughters that he apparently used to dote on, it evokes more of a shrug.
Yambo spends his first few days out of the hospital obsessing about whether he's ever bedded his lovely blond assistant. Since the first thing his wife, Paola, told him about their marriage was that he'd had affairs - lots of them - this is apparently par for the course.
Eco has no interest in exploring "Regarding Henry" territory; his protagonist isn't about to use a bout of amnesia to do something so banal as become a better person. Instead, Eco uses Yambo's plight to catalog the collective memory of the generation of Italians who grew up under Benito Mussolini.
In an effort to recover his memory, Yambo leaves Milan for his family's country home, Solara, to sift through the paper trail of his childhood. He spends his days in the "hazel silence of the attic," trying to construct a "paper memory."
Eco does more than tell us what Yambo is reading - he shows us, with gorgeous reproductions of Strand magazine illustrations, stamps, fascist anthems, and Flash Gordon comics that pepper the story's pages. (Not all of them are ones you'd want your kids leafing through: There's a table of torture and a risqué picture or two.) It's a gimmick but an effective one, and one that longtime fans of Eco will definitely appreciate, since he has said in interviews that most of the memorabilia comes from his personal collection. Yambo, like Eco, also has a vast collection of literary quotations about fog. (I recognized about two: Carl Sandburg's "the fog comes on little cat feet," and Dickens's opening to "Bleak House.")
Those who don't enjoy the occasional ramble through "Bartlett's Quotations" may quickly lose patience with "Queen Loana," but bookworms will get an added kick out of puzzling out the dozens of literary allusions. Even more than Eco's "The Name of the Rose," his new novel "is a tale of books." It's probably illegal to write a book about memory without referencing Marcel Proust and his crumbly cookie, but Eco is just as erudite about Mandrake the Magician.
When the doctor asks if Yambo can remember his name, he replies, "My name is Arthur Gordon Pym," the opening line of Edgar Allan Poe's only novel, "The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket," considered by some to be an inspiration for "Moby-Dick." When asked to try again, Yambo says, "Call me Ishmael?" (See, it's fun!) Yambo is as much at sea as those two shipwrecked gents: He gets "mysterious flames" of recognition, but he can only tell that he remembers, not what the memory is.
"Mnemosyne, one must admit, has shown herself to be a very careless girl," says Vladimir Nabokov in his autobiography "Speak, Memory," and the Russian author knew all about the impossibility of reconstructing emotional memory from paper. "I have often noticed that after I had bestowed on the characters of my novels some treasured item of my past, it would pine away in the artificial world where I had so abruptly placed it. Although it lingered on in my mind, its personal warmth, its retrospective appeal had gone."
It takes a second coma for Yambo to access his memories and for the reader to learn how fog, stamps from Fiji, and the comic book sound "sfft" are all inextricably linked. Less of a payoff (for the reader anyway) are Yambo's returning memories of Lila Saba, the object of his lifelong obsession.
"The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana" is impressive in the sheer breadth of knowledge intertwined to form a national consciousness, and the tale it tells is engaging, but it could have had even more resonance if its protagonist had been less self-absorbed. To a certain degree, his life story shares the same shortcoming that Yambo diagnoses in himself: "I don't have feelings, I only have memorable sayings."
• Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.