Umberto Eco is a professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, which is way cooler than my professorship at the University of Pimento Loaf. I crack myself up. (If, like me, you need to look up semiotics, here’s a definition – if you figure out what it means, call me). Anyway, I mention that semiotics thing, first because it is in the first paragraph in any article about Umberto Eco, and secondly, because I think it is actually central to the book.
Mysterious Flame is the story of an antiquarian book dealer in Milan, Yambo, who finds himself in the hospital and a little confused. He’s in his sixties, and he’s had a stroke. He learns that his personal memories are gone, but his memory of facts (encyclopedia memory) is intact. His wife and family and friends are all strangers to him, but he can remember lines of poems, songs, and historical events.
He’s sent home to try to adjust with the hope that familiar surroundings will jog his memory. He relearns his way around town and gets reaquainted with his business. He learns through a chance encounter that he is a philanderer, and he’s wonders what’s the point of an affair if it blotted from your memory. Early attempts to revive his memory are not successful. His wife eventually decides that the best thing to do is send him to his family’s country home for a few weeks, where he spent his childhood, in the hopes that the surroundings will revive his memories.
In the attic and closed rooms of the country house, Yambo finds a treasure of old books and records that he uses as the foundation for reconstructing his life. The covers of these books, the cover of albums, illustrations, and the lyrics of the songs are reproduced throughout the book. Up to a point, you rediscover the books of Yambo’s youth along with him. Every once in a while a feeling more powerful than the “flicker” of recognition, the “mysterious flame” lets Yambo know that he is on to something.
In this way workman-like way, Yambo rediscovers a role he played in Fascist Italy during World War II and “remembers” the great love of his life. I don’t want to go any further into those plots, because they are very interesting and who knows, you may want to read the book.
So the “semiotic aspect” of the book was the idea of images, words, and music as signposts for the memory. It got me wondering, if I were Yambo telling the story, what images, books, and songs would have been used as the sign posts of my youth. What media would I use to tell my life story? I thought briefly about pulling some things together for this post, but I ramble on long enough as it is. Maybe another day.
I dug this book.
But here’s an aside: while re-learning about Italy’s involvement in WWII, I kept asking myself, has anyone gotten off easier for that war than Italy? Could you imagine a grandchild of Hitler running on a far right national socialist platform in Germany? Yet, Mussolini’s granddaughter is a member of the European Parliament as we speak. Did no one catch the last name? She began her political career as a topless model. She’s also a surgeon. She’s also the niece of Sophia Loren. Who married one of Mussolini’s sons. I’m not making this up. Politics may be fairly boring in this country.