I bought a copy of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana by Umberto Eco ages ago, when it first came out, but I’ve only just got round to reading it. This is a shame, because it would have been an excellent bit of ammunition when I was writing about illustrated books back in October. It completely proves my point by having the most fantastically wonderful colour illustrations, and they are woven into the novel in a really interesting way – their presence builds up until the denouement, when they become an integral part of the narrative. It compares with WG Sebald’s use of photos, but I almost liked it more (although I know a certain reader might find this heretical) because the pictures are so colourful. It felt like a real celebration of just how lovely a book can be.
The whole novel is about the love of books – the protagonist, Yambo, a rare book dealer, suffers a sort of amnesia which means he can only remember the books he has read. One of the best lines comes towards the beginning of the book, when Yambo is asked his name, and replies “Call me… Ishmael?” It’s completely stuffed with references to other works. I would highly recommend splashing out on the hardback edition, as it is a real pleasure to read a wonderful book about books when it is published in such a jewel-like, joyful manner.
The Mysterious Flame… makes for an interesting comparison to Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveller. Both celebrate reading and books by breaking out of the norms of the novel. The Calvino does this meta-textually, the Eco visually; both, I would argue, with equal success. This is not to say that books are the only subject of Eco’s novel: the way Yambo re-creates his past, re-experiencing the influence of comic books, the Catholic church and Italian Fascism is fascinating, and the illustrations serve to bring these subjects to life.