Umberto Eco's novels tend to be compendia: The Name of the Rose (1980) rounded up vast amounts of medieval lore, Foucault's Pendulum (1988) spoofed all known conspiracy theories. This new baggy monster is, among other things, a treasury of children's literature and printed ephemera, the sort of relics you keep in the boxroom, the archaeology of your early life.
The medical upset that robs the narrator of his memory is never specified. He wakes in hospital in Milan to be told that he is a successful rare-book dealer known as Yambo, short for Giambattista, and is now, in 1991, aged 59. (This makes him a contemporary of Eco himself.) He has a wife, children and grandchildren he does not recognise. He can recall that Tokyo is the capital of Japan and that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the squares of the other two sides; he knows that in the room the women come and go talking of Michelangelo; he even knows how to drive a car. But his personal and emotional memories have gone.
The doctor says different bits of the brain are involved, as if the family album and the reference books were kept in dif- ferent rooms. Yambo goes home, meets his best friend, Gianni, who is also his tax adviser (how very Italian), looks in at his office and wonders if he had an affair with his assistant Sibilla. But however much people prompt him, nothing really comes back.
His wife sends him to stay at his family's little-used country place, where his childhood books and memorabilia are still stored in the attic. He tries to rebuild himself by rereading everything. Many of the book covers, illustrations, comic strips, magazine adverts and postcards are reproduced, often credited "author's collection" in the list at the back. Some of them do trip Yambo's memory - for instance, the cover of the sheet music for a George Formby film: he can picture Formby "riding a motorcycle into a haystack and coming out the other side amid a din of chickens", and he knows he saw it three times, but even that is sort of cultural rather than personal. More often, when looking at a photo of his parents or reading some meaningful passage, all he experiences is the vague feeling he calls "the mysterious flame".
He finds his schoolbooks with bloodthirsty pro-fascist essays that he wrote. A year later at big school, however, the essays are thoughtful. Yambo realises he was doing whatever would get the best marks from a given teacher. Then he discovers his awful love poems, and phones Gianni to find out who the girl was: Lila Saba, everybody's favourite, and no, he didn't get anywhere.
He digs out religious pamphlets laying great stress on the sixth commandment, "the most important, not committing impure acts, and many of the teachings were transparently directed against the illicit touching of one's own body". Considering all the magazines with sexy film stars on the covers, and that postcard of Josephine Baker, this looks like a clas-sic case of Catholic guilt in the making. You may be wondering if that shouldn't be the seventh commandment, and if it should not just debar adultery. Well, Anthony Burgess always said the Italian Bible was pretty dodgy.
Much of the material is particular to Eco and his generation, or at any rate to Italy. Yambo discusses at length a children's author called Salgari, recalling that "people today still talk about Salgari all the time, and sophisticated critics devote nostalgia-drenched screeds to him". Not in Camden Town they don't. Eco's vast foreign readership is perhaps not going to get full value from the novel, even though he does dwell on Mickey Mouse, Sherlock Holmes and Flash Gordon. But the real point, I take it, is to show how much of our precious consciousness, identity and sense of self is constructed of trivial, contingent little snippets.
Yambo happens on a comic book called The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, a banal and silly adventure story that sounds suspiciously like H Rider Haggard's She (though neither Yambo nor Eco seems to notice this). That is where his resonant phrase "mysterious flame" comes from. He also realises that he has, perhaps unconsciously, named his daughter and his cat after favourite characters in a children's novel, Eight Days in the Attic.
One last discovery, a sensational one, proves too much and Yambo relapses. Now in a dreamlike coma, he has all his memories back, including a formative experience with the partisans in 1945, grippingly related - but he suspects he is dying. The final illustration, taken from some devotional card, shows a kindly priest beckoning. It resembles a wartime propaganda poster we saw earlier, of a German soldier extending the hand of friendship. A disillusioned Eco suggests that even if the inner life of mankind is so much semi-significant gibberish, still it is life, and the alternative is no great shakes.