Yambo, a sixtyish rare-book dealer who lives in Milan, has suffered a loss of memory-he can remember the plot of every book he has ever read, every line of poetry, but he no longer knows his own name, doesn't recognize his wife or his daughters, and remembers nothing about his parents or his childhood. In an effort to retrieve his past, he withdraws to the family home somewhere in the hills between Milan and Turin. There, in the sprawling attic, he searches through boxes of old newspapers, comics, records, photo albums, and adolescent diaries. And so Yambo relives the story of his generation: Mussolini, Catholic education and guilt, Josephine Baker, Flash Gordon, Fred Astaire. His memories run wild, and the life racing before his eyes takes the form of a graphic novel. Yambo struggles through the frames to capture one simple, innocent image: that of his first love.
A fascinating, abundant novel-wide-ranging, nostalgic, funny, full of heart-from the incomparable Eco.
1. The Cruelest Month
"And what's your name?"
"Wait, it's on the tip of my tongue."
That is how it all began.
I felt as if I had awoke from a long sleep, and yet I was still suspended in a milky gray. Or else I was not awake, but dreaming. It was a strange dream, void of images, crowded with sounds. As if I could not see, but could hear voices that were telling me what I should have been seeing. And they were telling me that I could not see anything yet, only a haziness along the canals where the landscape dissolved. Bruges, I said to myself, I was in Bruges. Had I ever been to Bruges the Dead? Where fog hovers between the towers like incense dreaming? A gray city, sad as a tombstone with chrysanthemums, where mist hangs over the façades like tapestries...
My soul was wiping the streetcar windows so it could drown in the moving fog of the headlamps. Fog, my uncontaminated sister...A thick, opaque fog, which enveloped the noises and called up shapeless phantoms...Finally I came to a vast chasm and could see a colossal figure, wrapped in a shroud, its face the immaculate whiteness of snow. My name is Arthur Gordon Pym.
I was chewing fog. Phantoms were passing, brushing me, melting. Distant bulbs glimmered like will-o'-the-wisps in a graveyard...
Someone is walking by my side, noiselessly, as if in bare feet, walking without heels, without shoes, without sandals. A patch of fog grazes my cheek, a band of drunks is shouting down there, down by the ferry. The ferry? It is not me talking, it is the voices.
The fog comes on little cat feet...There was a fog that seemed to have taken the world away.
Yet every so often it was as if I had opened my eyes and were seeing flashes. I could hear voices: "Strictly speaking, Signora, it isn't a coma....No, don't think about flat encephalograms, for heaven's sake....There's reactivity...."
Someone was aiming a light into my eyes, but after the light it was dark again. I could feel the puncture of a needle, somewhere. "You see, there's withdrawal..."
Maigret plunges into a fog so dense that he can't even see where he's stepping....The fog teems with human shapes, swarms with an intense, mysterious life. Maigret? Elementary, my dear Watson, there are ten little Indians, and the hound of the Baskervilles vanishes into the fog.
The gray vapor was gradually losing its grayness of tint, the heat of the water was extreme, and its milky hue was more evident than ever...And now we rushed into the embraces of the cataract, where a chasm threw itself open to receive us.
I heard people talking around me, wanted to shout to let them know I was there. There was a continuous drone, as though I were being devoured by celibate machines with whetted teeth. I was in the penal colony. I felt a weight on my head, as if they had slipped the iron mask onto my face. I thought I saw sky blue lights.
"There's asymmetry of the pupillary diameters."
I had fragments of thoughts, clearly I was waking up, but I could not move. If only I could stay awake. Was I sleeping again? Hours, days, centuries?
The fog was back, the voices in the fog, the voices about the fog. Seltsam, im Nebel zu wandern! What language is that? I seemed to be swimming in the sea, I felt I was near the beach but was unable to reach it. No one saw me, and the tide was carrying me away again.
Please tell me something, please touch me. I felt a hand on my forehead. Such relief. Another voice: "Signora, there are cases of patients who suddenly wake up and walk away under their own power."
Someone was disturbing me with an intermittent light, with the hum of a tuning fork. It was as if they had put a jar of mustard under my nose, then a clove of garlic. The earth has the odor of mushrooms.
Other voices, but these from within: long laments of the steam engine, priests shapeless in the fog walking single file toward San Michele in Bosco.
The sky is made of ash. Fog up the river, fog down the river, fog biting the hands of the little match girl. Chance people on the bridges to the Isle of Dogs look into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon and hanging under the brown fog...I had not thought death had undone so many. The odor of train station and soot.
Another light, softer. I seem to hear, through the fog, the sound of bagpipes starting up again on the heath.
Another long sleep, perhaps. Then a clearing, like being in a glass of water and anisette...
He was right in front of me, though I still saw him as a shadow. My head felt muddled, as if I were waking up after having drunk too much. I think I managed to murmur something weakly, as if I were in that moment beginning to talk for the first time: "Posco reposco flagito-do they take the future infinitive? Cujus regio ejus religio...is that the Peace of Augsburg or the Defenestration of Prague?" And then: "Fog too on the Apennine stretch of the Autosole Highway, between Roncobilaccio and Barberino del Mugello..."
He smiled sympathetically. "But now open your eyes all the way and try to look around. Do you know where we are?" Now I could see him better. He was wearing a white-what is it called?-coat. I looked around and was even able to move my head: the room was sober and clean, a few small pieces of pale metal furniture, and I was in bed, with a tube stuck in my arm. From the window, through the lowered blinds, came a blade of sunlight, spring on all sides shines in the air, and in the fields rejoices. I whispered: "We are...in a hospital and you...you're a doctor. Was I sick?"
"Yes, you were sick. I'll explain later. But you've regained consciousness now. That's good. I'm Dr. Gratarolo. Forgive me if I ask you some questions. How many fingers am I holding up?"
"That's a hand and those are fingers. Four of them. Are there four?"
"That's right. And what's six times six?"
"Thirty-six, of course." Thoughts were rumbling through my head, but they came as if of their own accord. "The sum of the areas of the squares...built on the two legs...is equal to the area of the square built on the hypotenuse."
"Well done. I think that's the Pythagorean theorem, but I got a C in math in high school..."
"Pythagoras of Samos. Euclid's elements. The desperate loneliness of parallel lines that never meet."
"Your memory seems to be in excellent condition. And by the way, what's your name?"
That is where I hesitated. And yet I did have it on the tip of my tongue. After a moment I offered the most obvious reply.
"My name is Arthur Gordon Pym."
"That isn't your name."
Of course, Pym was someone else. He did not come back again. I tried to come to terms with the doctor.
"Your name is not Ishmael. Try harder."
A word. Like running into a wall. Saying Euclid or Ishmael was easy, like saying Jack and Jill went up a hill. Saying who I was, on the other hand, was like turning around and finding that wall. No, not a wall; I tried to explain. "It doesn't feel like something solid, it's like walking through fog."
"What's the fog like?" he asked.
"The fog on the bristling hills climbs drizzling up the sky, and down below the mistral howls and whitens the sea...What's the fog like?"
"You put me at a disadvantage-I'm only a doctor. And besides, this is April, I can't show you any fog. Today's the twenty-fifth of April."
April is the cruelest month."
"I'm not very well read, but I think that's a quotation. You could say that today's the Day of Liberation. Do you know what year this is?"
"It's definitely after the discovery of America..."
"You don't remember a date, any kind of date, before...your reawakening?"
PRAISE FOR THE MYSTERIOUS FLAME OF QUEEN LOANA
"An insidiously witty and provocative story."--Los Angeles Times
"Brilliantly written and gorgeously illustrated . . . As we accompany Yambo on his trail of self-discovery, we see Umberto Eco, one of the great minds of our era, reveal a little of his heart."--Chicago Sun-Times
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