Books remaining: 21. Weeks remaining: 43.
Memory can also be beautiful …
Someone said that it acts like a convergent lens in a camera obscura: it focuses everything, and the image that results from it is much more beautiful than the original.
I had a false start with E.
There were only three author choices, Anne Enright (The Gathering), Dave Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius) or Umberto Eco (a choice of The Name of the Rose, Foucalt’s Pendulum or The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.
Enright’s The Gathering appealed so little I might just get rid of it now.
Can’t be bothered with another multigenerational family epic right now, even if it did win the 2007 Man Booker prize.
See? I am improving!
So I chose Eggers. A colleague loved it. The title intrigued. The blurb was mysterious.
But I saw after the first chapter that it featured a dying parent. I have an unerring talent in picking picking books and movies unwitting that they are about about death, cancer and infirmity. These are very uncomfortable, making me weep immoderately.
This time, I got to the mother spitting green sputum into a towel and signed off, despite Eggers’ beguiling writing.
Sputum warnings should be included on the cover.
That left Eco. Felt ashamed because owned three and had not read any. I tried the Rose and Pendulum years ago. Doubtless because they made me use my brain, I speedily gave up on each.
I thought third time had to be a charm – and, truly, I was charmed upon beginning The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.
Antiquarian book dealer Yambo wakes up in hospital rendered amnesiac by some kind of illness. He doesn’t remember his life or his wife, who eventually gets to take him back to their Milan home to recover.
He does remember, in detail, his lifetime collection of quotes about fog – yep, 150 pages of literary quotations on fog. He doesn’t know why any longer, obviously, but he has always been obsessed with fog.
Much like the one now enshrouding his memory, the uni student inside me murmurs.
Yambo tries to find reasons for his obsession, but his encounters with people and places he once knew provoke no recognition, save for the odd “mysterious flame” that flares at the sight of an object or the sound of some words.
It begins as a book with a mystery at its heart, drenched in literary allusion, but by no means inaccessible, lit on every page by an easy wit and simplicity.
Then Yambo travels to the country to stay in the old family home he grew up in during WWII, hoping that if he goes through every box, touches every toy, and reads every book he did as a boy, he will rediscover the secret of who he is.
As we travel with him through this illustrated novel, we see pages upon pages of pictures –book and comic covers, magazine and record covers, song lyrics, quotations, advertisements. It’s a feast for the eyes as well as the mind, in which Eco explores the visual nature of memory.
“Who knows how many times over the past thirty years you were reminded of them because you kept seeing this photo? You can’t think of memory as a warehouse where you deposit past events and retrieve them later just as they were when you put them there.”
Things slow right down when Yambo starts reliving Fascist Italy in painful detail, down to every nationalist song lyric and propagandised comic book. Rich illustrations evoke a vanished world in almost dismaying detail.
The memory of one day blurs into the next. I know only that I was reading in a wild, disorderly fashion. I did not read everything word for word. Some books and magazines I skimmed as though I was flying over a landscape.
Meanwhile, I felt seriously bogged down, rather than anything remotely like flying.
If not for the Project I would have abandoned the thing altogether. The endless recitations of plots of long-dead adventure serials left me cold. Like Yambo, I got sick of skim-reading song lyrics, book plots and comic titles assembled in such volume. I would challenge anyone to actually read every one of those lyrics, and can only hope that I was only supposed, like Yambo, just to scan them in the vain hope they would end up meaning something.
In any case, it was undeniable that there in Solara every word gave rise to another. Would I be able to climb back up that chain to the final word? What would it be? “I”?
Looking back I wonder if this was Eco’s aim – to show Yambo’s sense of overwhelm and frustration at the pointless drudgery of such an exercise, and to make the reader wonder with him whether a human being can ever be entirely encapsulated in images and words.
I said to myself: Yambo, your memory is made of paper. Not of neurons, but of pages. Maybe someday someone invent an electronic contraption allowing people to travel by computer along all the pages ever written, from the beginning of the world until today, and to pass from one to the other with the touch of a finger, without knowing any longer where or who they are, and then everyone will be like you.
Yambo finally makes a discovery, and his quest to rediscover the memory underlying it all inches forward. There is exquisite philosophy here, and suspense – but by now only my body was still curled up with the book. My mind was already straying back to the shelf. I forced myself to finish it but when I did, felt nothing but profound relief.
I did get a cool quote that made me think of my Curing project, though:
“I have so many books. Sorry, we do.”
“Five thousand here. And there’s always some imbecile who comes over and says, how many books do you have, have you read them all?”
“And what do I say?”
“Usually you say: not one, why else would I be keeping them here? Do you by chance keep tins of meat after you’ve emptied them? As for the five thousand I’ve already read, I gave them away to prisons and hospitals. And the imbecile reels.”
Keep or let go? Let go. Both pictures and ideas are beautiful, and a book can be great without ever making you warm and fuzzy, but I have no-one I would want to lend this to. Purely as a collector’s item, it will give someone browsing in an opportunity shop a thrill.
If only I knew someone who needed the ultimate collection of literary quotes about fog, or someone with a passion for fascist Italian history – everyone’s favourite dinner party guest.
Perhaps it is telling that if I actually met someone who told me they enjoyed brushing up on fascist history and collecting fog quotes, I might run away before even thinking to say “hey I have just the book for you”.