Saturday, July 21, 2012

The Mysterious Flame

‘The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana’ is another interesting book by Umberto Eco.  I never liked his earlier works although the stories were unique and exciting. For example, ‘The Name of the Rose’ and ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’, both with interesting plots but not easy reading due to the way it was written, obtuse and dense to my taste. It was difficult to plod through his works as I was unable to grasp what his point of view was; perhaps one needed to be a European, to experience or understand the context to be able to grasp Eco. Later his works seemed to achieve more clarity like Mysterious Flame and ‘The Prague Cemetery’, but still the European sensibility moves towards the complex and nuanced view. American writers tilt towards simplicity, more direct to the point, writers like Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy. Perhaps it is Eco’s background as semiotician, essayist, philosopher and literary critic that lends his work an academic and opaque air.

Someday I hope to read those 2 books I mentioned earlier, perhaps after getting more exposure to European history. Other European writers have a similar flair but authors like Carlos Perez-Reverte have simplicity of prose that is much easier to understand despite having a predilection for density that is the hallmark of European writers. Perhaps it is the key to understanding the European mind, not the English mind which has clearness such as Shakespeare (after removing the medieval syntax in the prose). Another good example is Winston Churchill who writes directly to the point, although with an elegance of phrasing due to his wealthy upbringing. On the other hand, one is bias because one communicates in the English language and not the Italian of Eco or the Spanish of Reverte. But it’s more than language and more on the focus on certain subjects, on certain ideas that seem esoteric and perhaps superstitious to the clear cut American mind.

The American writer closest to European sensibilities maybe John Updike with his dense prose. One does not leave his works remembering the plot but more the elegant phrasing, unlike Roth or McCarthy where one remembers certain scenes and plot details. Eco has a better record as one recalls the scenes that are interesting and also the phrasing of his words. Eco’s recent works resemble a feast, an entertainment that fully satisfies the reader (or a listener like me heeding to the audio book); the first person narrative is effective in giving the impression that one is hearing a story from someone sitting beside you, the voice immediate and intimate. Reading a book is like listening to music, the words flowing into the ears and into the mind until an image forms, sounds and sights materializing in the brain as the story unfolds, like watching a film. The writer is effective when his words achieve this effect and fails when he does not, which Eco’s earlier books were, failing to provide the cinematic effect. Until one understand the context, perhaps by study, reading other books or watching a movie about similar themes that one is prepared to understand Eco’s works.
Perhaps that is how one learns as he makes his way through life, letting the words from supervisors and peers wash over you at work, or from one’s friends and relatives, the mental picture of what needs to be done arising in the mind, allowing one to function normally in society. It is a visual world but the abstract meaning of words need time to formulate and gain traction. Stress is formed when the mind has not assimilated the message, the bombardment of emails, phone calls, meetings and discussions is too much to absorb; putting multiple demands on the person’s psyche. It is the challenge that one faces in modern life, similar to the narrator in the Mysterious Flame as he tries to reconstruct his memory from comic strips, books read and artifacts from childhood, having lost his memory after a stroke. In another sense, one is trying to determine the next step with the onslaught of information bombarding the mind. A typical example: working as project manager in a small project, supporting an application installed in seven warehouses, testing an application that is not working, organizing a seminar in the coming week, answering emails, reading multiple books and so on all at the same time. Achieving sanity and grace is like looking for a mysterious flame to light the way forward.

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