An experience of “retrograde amnesia” stimulates journeys into both the darkened past and the undisclosed future—in the celebrated Italian polymath’s fifth erudite doorstopper (Baudolino, 2002, etc.).
Sixtyish book dealer Giambattista (“Yambo”) Bodoni awakens in a Milan hospital after a heart attack that has erased all memory of his own life while leaving every scrap of every book, comic strip, pop song, movie and the like he has ever experienced perfectly intact. This splendid premise yields rich comedy in early pages that describe Yambo’s bemused return to the home and family he no longer recognizes. Complications multiply when his wife Paola (a highly intelligent psychologist) persuades Yambo to retreat to Solaro, the country home owned by his grandfather (also a bookseller), where Yambo spent much of his childhood. Rummaging through old books and newspapers, letters, photographs, school notebooks and other memorabilia, Yambo retrieves details that partially explain his lifelong fascination with the phenomenon of fog and the concept of the “mysterious flame” that, he senses, quickens his imagination—and is “reminded” of Lila Saba, the girl he first loved. Then Eco throws things into another gear, as a “second incident” puts Yambo back in hospital, and into a coma in which his memory returns. We learn how he grew up in “Il Duce’s” Italy, forsaking a religious conversion for the promises of sex, and surviving a perilous wartime adventure every bit the equal of his storybook heroes’ exploits. Finally, attended by all the figures who graced his reading and dreaming, Yambo prepares himself for his reunion with Lila Saba. This charming story’s considerable self-indulgence is largely vitiated by dozens of wonderful period illustrations, the fun of trying to recognize numerous mangled literary and subliterary quotations, and its protagonist’s ebullient (however damaged) sensibility.
A head-spinning tour through the corridors of history and popular culture, and one of this sly entertainer’s liveliest yet.