I went to the bookstore the other day, wandered the aisles, restlessly, searching for something. Whenever the cashier asks me if I have found everything I was looking for I am always tempted to say "No." I think I would die if there ever came a time when there were no more books to discover, nothing new to look for. So I continue to search. Begin at the A's, move back and forth, waiting for something new to catch my eye. I have Ferlinghetti's Americus, Book I in one hand and a banana-coconut frappé in the other. The book I will save for later, the drink I am noisily slurping through a straw. And then, there it is. The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, by Umberto Eco. I have been waiting for it to come out in paperback, and here it is.
There is no greater excitement, anticipation, (except for perhaps when I am about to taste a dish that I know will be delicious) than when I buy a book at the store. Examine the artwork that decorates the cover, scan the summary on the back cover, begin reading the first few sentences. The barest taste of the pleasure to come. Eager to go home and settle in with the book, I rush off to pay. At the cashier, we converse about the weather, I wonder to myself whether to pay with cash, or with a credit card. Refuse the offer of a carrier bag, the receipt tucked inside the book. And then the anticipation of the drive home.
In this story, Yambo wakes up after a coma and cannot remember anything, except for everything he has ever read. He cannot recognize his own wife, his daughters, his grandchildren, but he remembers characters from stories and their words. In trying to speak, he instead comes out with quotes from great works of literature. Yambo is entangled between the worlds of books, which he remembers, and the world he lives in, which he does not remember, and all the while his wife tells him about how he lived. Can you imagine losing your memory? I forget things all the time. A conversation from the morning is forgotten by the afternoon. A telephone number must be written down, otherwise I will have to look it up again even before I have taken two steps to the phone. But literature I remember, long passages from The English Patient which I read out loud to my friends in high school, poems I studied because I had to or because I loved them, words from The Master and Margarita that are indelibly imprinted on my brain, nearly all of A Room with a View. Even if I forget everything else, I must remember the books I loved most.
I have not gotten very far, but already I feel the words sliding around me, trapping me in their embrace. Strangely, this does not feel like Eco's other novels, but like his essays on literature and memory, which is why I already love it. I am reminded a little of Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. That headlong descent into everything I love most about literature. That gently reckless free-fall.