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Literature / The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana

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A novel by Umberto Eco.

Yambo Bodoni has a problem. After suffering a stroke, he lost his episodic memory. Now he can't remember his name, family, or any aspects of his life. Thanks to a lifetime of work as an antiquarian book dealer in Milan, however, he can recall anything he's ever read. In order to rediscover his lost past, Yambo heads to his childhood hometown of Solara. As he pores through old newspapers, comics, and magazines, Yambo - and the reader - get glimpses into the often tragic and bittersweet reality of a boy coming of age in Italy during World War II.


This book provides examples of:

  • Aborted Declaration of Love: After nursing his schoolboy crush on Lila for weeks, Yambo finally musters enough nerve to confess everything. He waits for her to come home from school, mentally going over exactly what he's going to say. When Lila arrives, he can barely stutter out a single sentence of small talk before awkwardly leaving.
  • Action Survivor: Yambo, due to helping the Cossacks narrowly escape the Germans.
  • Adults Are Useless: Young Yambo thinks this just before he leads the Cossacks through the Gorge. It's instantly subverted once Reality Ensues.
  • Ambiguous Ending: Why is the sun turning black?
  • Amnesiac Hero: Yambo. The novel even starts out with him at the hospital awkwardly trying to figure out his name.
  • Amnesiac Lover: Much to the chagrin of Yambo's wife Paola, who has to provide him a brief summary of his life.
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  • Amnesiacs are Innocent: Played with. Yambo wonders if he was romantically interested in his assistant, only to discover she's already taken.
  • Atheism: After years of a Catholic upbringing, a teenaged Yambo has a revelation as he watches a soccer match with his father. He can't quite explain it other than "God does not exist." He confesses shortly afterward and, according to Paola, he never went to any soccer matches as an adult.
    I must have had it in my head, from that day on, that going to a match meant losing my soul.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Gragnola wears a lancet as a way to kill himself in case he gets captured, and that's exactly what happens.
  • The Big Guy: Gigio was this for Yambo's grandpa's group. When a wagon fell into a ditch, he hauled it out single-handedly.
  • Bookworm: Yambo, before and after his amnesia.
  • Cannot Spit It Out: Yambo waxes poetic in his internal monologues about Lila. Actually saying something out loud, on the other hand...
  • Chekhov's Skill: Yambo's ability to climb the Gorge.
  • Childhood Friend Romance: Yambo wishes he had this with his classmate Lila Saba. It never happens.
  • Children Are Innocent: Yambo thinks he's prepared to go on dangerous adventure through the Gorge to escape the Germans, but he quickly changes his tune when things get bloody.
  • Child Soldiers: Not quite. Yambo uses his knowledge of the Gorge to help the Cossacks escape the Germans and narrowly avoids being shot, but he never gets involved in the fighting.
  • Coming-of-Age Story: We get to see Yambo's via lengthy flashbacks.
  • Congruent Memory: Yambo attempts to reclaim his past by reading things associated with it.
  • Cynical Mentor: Gragnola is already bitter by the time Yambo gets to know him.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: The result of Lila, Yambo's first boyhood crush. Even worse, she barely knew him and died shortly after they last saw each other.
  • Disproportionate Retribution: Sheltering World War II deserters? Your town gets burned to the ground.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: Yambo's reintroduction to his assistant Sibilla quickly devolves into this. Going by Paola's explanation, Yambo hasn't been a faithful husband. Judging by his infatuation with his childhood classmate, it's nothing new.
  • Doomed Hometown: Solara narrowly averts this during World War II, thanks to Yambo's help and Gragnola's sacrifice.
  • Downer Ending: Yambo never sees Lila's face, isn't sure what memories are real, and may be dying in the last third of the book. It's possible that everything after the moment he finds Shakespeare's First Folio is the visions of his life before his death.
  • Driven to Suicide: Gragnola slices his throat to avoid a Fate Worse than Death.
  • Encyclopaedic Knowledge: Going by the sheer amount of references, Yambo certainly qualifies.
  • Failed a Spot Check: Gragnola let his guard down once he got the Cossacks escorted out of town. It doesn't end well.
  • Gainax Ending: The last forty pages or so are Yambo having a stream of consciousness-style monologue in which he wonders whether he's really been dreaming the whole book, dreaming he's in a dream, it he's a Brain in a Jar, etc. He then prays to Queen Loana in an attempt to see Lila's face, resulting in several illustrated visions of the fictional characters and people from his childhood, culminating with him appearing at Lila's foyer in the past, waiting for her to come home from school so he can confess his love. Before he can see her face, however, the sun turns black and the novel ends.
  • Genius Book Club: His work as an antiquarian book dealer.
  • Genre Savvy: Yambo's grandfather and Gragnola know exactly what kind of situations they're thrown into. It only works for a while for the latter.
  • Growing Up Sucks: Especially when dealing with the fallout of World War II.
  • Harmful to Minors: Undertaking a mission that meant facing certain death at the hands of the Germans, and knowing his would-be mentor killed some of them in cold blood, and finding out said mentor killed himself didn't do a lot of good for Yambo's childhood.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Yambo for Lila. He even lampshades it by comparing it to Cyrano de Bergerac.
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Sibella has been running the book dealership since Yambo lost his memory.
  • Identity Amnesia: Aside from his Bookworm tendencies, anyway.
  • I Did What I Had to Do: Gragnola kills two German captives in order to throw off their pursuers and get across the Gorge safely.
  • Indy Ploy:
    • Yambo's grandpa manages to hide a group of deserters by building a brick wall sealing them inside the chapel.
    • The entire escape from Solara devolves into this, with tragic results.
  • Informed Judaism: Young Yambo met a man named Signor Ferrara. Yambo was too young to know anything about the significance of Jewish people in the years leading up to World War II (his elders simply told him to keep quiet about it), and doesn't think twice when Ferrara and his friends disappear one day. It's not until after the war that he finds out.
    By war's end I had learned a great deal, not only how babies are born, but also how Jews die.
  • Innocence Lost: Yambo is never the same after the encounter with the Germans.
  • In-Series Nickname: Yambo's full name is actually Giambattista Bodoni, which is a shout out to the Real Life typographer Giambattista Bodoni.
  • Just a Kid: Completely justified during the Cossacks' escape from Solara. The young Yambo does not deal with the nearly botched escape, the deaths of two Germans, and Gragnola's suicide well.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Gragnola spends a lot of time philosophizing over Italy's condition in wartime and the likelihood of God Is Evil. He's also the one who volunteers to get the Cossacks out of Solara after Yambo guides them through the Gorge.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Yambo can only remember things he's read, resulting in dialogue crammed with quotes and references.
  • Loss of Identity: Played depressingly straight. Yambo quickly realizes that he can't even recognize his family.
  • The Lost Lenore: Lila Saba, Yambo's first love.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Yambo goes into particularly detailed explanation of how to get the most money out of a client selling a book collection.
  • May–December Romance: Upon being reintroduced to his assistant Sibilla, Yambo silently muses if they had an affair. He gets proven wrong shortly after.
  • Mentor Occupational Hazard: Gragnola.
  • Mr. Exposition: Gragnola has a lot of religious and political discourse with Yambo.
  • Nerves of Steel: Yambo thinks he has them when he decides to help the Cossacks cross the Gorge. He's proven wrong shortly after.
  • Never-Forgotten Skill: Yambo still knows how to spot valuable texts among old collections - and how to get them at the best prices.
  • No Escape but Down: Gigio has to resort to this when the Fascists are distracted by Gragnola's suicide.
  • Old Retainer: Amalia is the only one left at Yambo's childhood home, and she shares a few anecdotes about his past.
  • Ominous Fog: The Gorge becomes nearly impossible to navigate at night because it's too foggy. Yambo manages to guide the Cossacks through, at the cost of the lives of two Germans.
  • Omniglot: Yambo, thanks to years of book dealing.
  • One Last Field Trip: Yambo's trip back to Solara to rediscover himself.
  • Playing Cyrano: Yambo blatantly uses it as a metaphor for his infatuation with Lila. They even watch Cyrano de Bergerac at one point.
  • Posthumous Character: Lila died decades ago, but Yambo doesn't remember it.
  • The Prankster:
    • Young Yambo and his friends show shades of this in their attempt to prank the boys from the neighboring town.
    • Sibilla pulls one off by putting a highly valuable - but fake - entry into Yambo's sale inventory.
  • Preacher Man: Don Renato.
  • Propaganda Machine: Some of the old documents Yambo finds are from Fascist Italy. He muses over how it affected his childhood and remembers wanting to be a ballila.
  • Properly Paranoid: Gragnola.
  • Puppy Love: Yambo falls hard for Lila Saba. It's entirely one-sided.
  • Quest for Identity: Essentially the premise of the story.
  • Reality Ensues:
    • Yambo and Gragnola's Indy Ploy seems dangerous but doable... until everything quickly goes south when they realize the pursuing Germans brought dogs to track them through the fog. Then the Cossacks get disoriented. Then they barely manage to capture two Germans and have to haul them around to prevent being discovered. Then one of the Germans drops his helmet, giving the dogs a scent to pursue. Then Gragnola and the Cossacks have to shove the captured Germans down the Gorge to their deaths in order to throw the pursuers off the trail. Yambo, who started the plan thinking it was like a comic book and believing Adults Are Useless, ends up being sent back home, terrified and traumatized.
    • Gragnola escorts the Cossacks to safety, he doesn't even notice an ambush and ends up committing suicide before he can be tortured.
    • Yambo becomes increasingly obsessed with Lila throughout the school year, culminating with him waiting for her to come home from class so he can finally confess his love. Not only does he not confess, he barely makes a sentence of small talk before retreating. Even worse, Lila barely even knows Yambo, and is implied to be dating a college boy!
    • Yambo returns to Solara in an attempt to regain his memory. He fails, ends up even more confused, and might be dying in the last third of the book.
  • Reference Overdosed: To the point that there's an entire wiki on just the shout outs.
  • Repressed Memories: Mostly revolving around Yambo's childhood in Italy amidst World War II.
  • Revenge: Merlo forced Yambo's grandpa to drink castor oil and destroyed his newspaper business. Yambo's grandpa returns the favor and more twenty one years later.
  • Self-Deprecation: Yambo doesn't think highly of the poetry he wrote as a teenager.
  • Serious Business: Yambo and his friends learn how to scale a near-impassible gorge just to prank the other kids. It becomes much more serious later on.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Yambo's infatuation with Lila Saba. She died shortly after they last saw each other decades ago.
  • Sherlock Scan: Yambo can figure out the most valuable books in your collection with just a glance.
  • Shoot the Shaggy Dog: Essentially what Yambo's obsession with Lila Saba, if not the entire novel ends up being.
  • Shout-Out: Way, way too many to list here. Another wiki has been working on it since the book's release, and it's still incomplete.
  • Shown Their Work: Umberto Eco doesn't just describe the newspapers and comics Yambo finds; he puts their images alongside the text.
  • Skewed Priorities:
    • Young Yambo really wanted his childhood crush to notice him, to the point of getting obsessed with the school play and ignoring his studies.
    • Want to sneak up and prank the boys from the next town over? Try learning how to climb (and nearly dying in the attempt) a nearly impassible Gorge.
  • The Smart Guy: Yambo. Judging by his lengthy dialogues, Gragnola was one as well.
  • Speaks in Shout-Outs: Given how he can only remember things he's read, Yambo's got a bit of this going on.
  • Survivor Guilt: Yambo has it after he finds out Gragnola died. The fact that he was just a kid at the time makes it even worse.
  • Thanatos Gambit: Gragnola escorts the Cossacks to safety and kills himself before he could be interrogated. As a result, his Fascist captors don't report the capture, thus sparing Solara from being burned to the ground.
    He had screwed them all: Fascists, Germans, and God in a single stroke.
  • Title Drop: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is the name of an old comic book Yambo finds in his childhood home.
  • Together in Death: Yambo hopes this is the case with him and Lila, but the book ends before he sees her again.
  • Trauma-Induced Amnesia: The novel begins with Yambo recovering from a stroke.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Umberto Eco outdid himself on this one. The amnesiac protagonist introducing himself as Arthur Gordon Pym is just the tip of the iceberg. Decent knowledge of classic literature, World War II, and pop culture are particularly useful. The sheer variety and obscurity of subjects referenced requires its own wiki to keep track of it all.
  • War Is Hell: And Yambo only got a small taste of it as a child.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Pretty much everything from the first section of the story.
  • Women Are Wiser: Paola's interactions with Yambo have shades of this.
  • Wrong Genre Savvy: Young Yambo thinks he's a kid hero helping the bumbling adults escape the Germans via the Gorge. His confidence doesn't last long once Reality Ensues.
  • Your Terrorists Are Our Freedom Fighters: Due to the volatile political circumstances near the end of World War II, the townspeople in Solara have to harbor a group of Cossack deserters and protect them from Germans and Fascists, the very groups most sided with years before.

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