An Illustrated Novel

By Umberto Eco

Translated from the Italian by Geoffrey Brock

Harcourt. 469 pp. $27

Italian novelist, scholar and all-around polymath Umberto Eco never met a byte of cultural data he didn't like, and his new novel -- or whatever this is -- is no exception. Part comic book, part scholarly dissertation and part faux-memoir, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana is a work of spectacular appetites and epic confusion.

Books about books are enjoying a surge of popularity these days, but Eco has been working the vein for more than 20 years, since The Name of the Rose -- a medieval detective novel of such monumental braininess it makes The Da Vinci Code resemble Spot the Dog -- became a global blockbuster 20 years ago. Like The Name of the Rose, which far more people bought than managed to finish, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana sounds more straightforward than it actually is: Sixty-year-old Yambo Bodoni, a rare-book dealer in Milan, suffers a stroke that erases all memory of his life, while leaving untouched a vast repository of literary lines and references, virtually all that he has ever read, heard or seen in print.

It's a tantalizing premise -- a human being reduced to a walking encyclopedia of cultural detritus, an uber-scholar who literally knows the world only through text. The novel's early going is engagingly brisk, as the amnesiac Bodoni tries to step back into his marriage and career while simultaneously puzzling out the literary scraps in his head. Bodoni's feelings of detachment give the first chapters a buoyant comic flavor, underscored by an awareness of profound loss. Learning from a friend that he was an inveterate adulterer, for instance, he wonders if he was having an affair with his beautiful assistant at the time of his stroke, but modesty prevents him from inquiring directly and prompts the mournful observation that "the best part of having loved . . . is the memory of having loved." Even sex is new to him: When he and his wife, Paola, finally make love, he observes: "That's not bad. Now I know why people are so fond of it."

Bodoni's condition leads him to a country estate in Solara owned by his grandfather, who was also a book collector. There, in isolation, he pores over a vast library of his childhood materials, everything from diaries and sentimental novels to comic books and old 78 records, with the hope of reassembling an identity and uncovering the source of his literary obsessions -- in particular, his extensive mental collection of images of fog and the "mysterious flame" of the book's title. Unfortunately, this is exactly where Eco slides almost completely into theory; once Bodoni steps into his childhood attic, the novel hyperventilates, subsumed by detailed summary of everything he finds. The splashy period illustrations notwithstanding, only the most intrepid reader will hack through this undifferentiated jungle of comic book plots, song lyrics, novel encapsulations and summarized cartoons that occupy fully 200 pages of the book.

Eco's point is that Bodoni, undistracted by living memory, has become a truly postmodern figure, a pure conduit of culture. This is an interesting idea, and no doubt this section of the novel will be lovingly scrutinized by any number of graduate students of literary theory for years to come. But in terms of novelistic engagement -- well, the wind goes completely out of the sails. Twenty pages would have made the point.

Eco seems to know this, and the book is rescued, if belatedly, by a second stroke, which restores Bodoni's memory but also leaves him completely incapacitated. A novel from the point of view of someone in a coma isn't a trick most writers should try, but Eco pulls it off. After a few pages of throat clearing, the story is up and running again. Beyond lies the most accessible and engaging portion of the novel, as Bodoni's literary obsessions crystallize around a personal history that he recounts with brio, a story of youthful love and desperate bravery in war. In a nod to Dante -- and what Italian novelist doesn't nod to Dante? -- the "mysterious flame" of the novel belongs to Lila Saba, the girl Bodoni loved but never, except for one fleeting encounter, spoke to. Featuring the political contortions of Il Duce's Italy, a sexually repressive Catholic education and a memorable escapade involving the rescue of a group of Russian deserters, this section of the novel accomplishes, with straightforward narrative clarity, what the middle passages cannot: a feeling for the way that various sources, literary and personal, build a web of meaning in the mind over a lifetime.

It's faint praise, perhaps, to say that a novel is worth the trouble, but that's the sort of book Eco has written here. Too long by half, it nevertheless rewards the patient reader with a tale that's both intellectually provoking and, in the end, emotionally serious. I have to say, along about page 250, in the midst of a long disquisition on Flash Gordon, he had me worried. But it's a rare and brave writer who will hazard losing a reader's attention like this. I'm glad I stuck it out. *

Justin Cronin's novel "The Summer Guest" has just been released in paperback.

Eco's novel features a long riff on Flash Gordon.