I certainly didn't mean to become a fan of Umberto Eco. It seems most Americans are mostly interested in reading either the classics, genre fiction, or whatever the bestseller is at the moment. There's very little room for anything else, although of course there's so much else. Eco is a name to a certain extent that has pedigree, but you have to be a fan or at least be familiar with him to know anything that he's written.
Well, now I've read two of his books. The first was The Island of the Day Before, a book I found at a library sale area. I scour this particular library's sale area every time I visit, but rarely are there truly interesting literary finds. Most of it is the kind of genre/bestseller fiction you'll find anywhere, which is kind of depressing if you think about it. All this pressure to make sure people think reading is important and no thought to admit that some reading is more important than others, more vital, more relevant to the form and the social contract we all share. It's not just about entertainment, but discovering ourselves through the words of someone else.
The last time I found a truly great book at a library sale was Mason & Dixon, which is the second book I've read from Thomas Pynchon. Either there are readers who have truly come to appreciate these books and have set them free back into the world awaiting discovery by others...or they were found perhaps too challenging from their original owners. Day Before was fascinating, a story about the age of exploration that made it vital in the same way as the fiction of Pynchon and others.
Eco remains fascinating in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, a book I picked up in a bargain sale at a bookstore. It's equally uncommon to find literary treasure in bargain sales at bookstores, because again the going rate is genre/bestseller fiction and various nonfiction oddities. I suppose I'm speaking of the act of discovery, because that's Eco's subject in Queen Loana.
The book reminds me a great deal of Javier Marias' Your Face Tomorrow cycle, originally released in three volumes. Marias meditated on the concept of narrative horror, what a cumulative life experience is ultimately worth. I also think of Ron Currie Jr.'s Everything Matters!, in which the main character is confronted with the end of the world and grapples with this idea his whole life.
Eco's story is about someone who has a particular form of amnesia that causes him to forget all his personal details. He regains his life but not himself, and engages in a process of uncovering his memories by pouring over the artifacts of his existence, the books and other readings that he and his grandfather amassed over the years.
A great deal of it isn't really about the character at all but his perspective on the Italian experience of WWII. It can sometimes be forgotten that besides the Germans and the Japanese, there were others who fought on the losing end of this conflict. We all remember Mussolini, but he's more a phantom figure, a ghost in the fog, than representative of history that seems significant. The more Eco meditates on this, the more fascinating his story becomes. When substitute obsessions like a first love or the very concept of God are introduced, they seem mere diversions. The more the character remembers, the less vibrant his thoughts become. He finds himself but loses the cutting edge of his discoveries.
It's all incredibly interesting. If there was any criticism of Day Before, it's that Eco tended to ramble in that one. Here he retains a razor focus, even in the final pages, which echo the main character's delirium when he at last succumbs to the inevitability of death, something that whole story has been suggesting subtly.
Chances are I'll be reading Eco again.