When Yambo, the protagonist of Umberto Eco's The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Loana, wakes from a coma in the novel's opening pages, he remembers a lot, including whole poems, lines from old songs, the plot of Moby Dick, and the details of the rare-books trade that's been his life's work. But he doesn't remember Yambo. He's retained a headful of high and low culture, but his life history eludes him. Though perfectly lucid and relatively functional—the workings of crosswalks and toothpaste baffle him at first, but he learns quickly—he's a stranger in his own life. When no amount of time spent with friends and family seems capable of snapping him back into shape, he decides to reconstruct himself from the start.

Retreating to an old family home filled with the objects of his childhood, Yambo pores over old records, a stamp collection, pulp fiction, and comic books, all while wondering if he can determine where he came from by piecing together the disparate pieces of pop culture. Eco makes this quest the meat of his novel, which, in other hands, might have been a dull read. Flame's long middle section is little more than a catalog of childhood obsessions filled out with illustrations of everything from sheet music to Flash Gordon strips. But for the author of The Name Of The Rose, they're texts rich with cultural significance for the generation that came of age under Mussolini.

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A semiotician when he's not writing novels—and arguably even when he is—Eco lets Yambo form a decent working theory of identity. Then, in the book's final chapters, he undermines it with a rush of real-world experience. There's a lot going on in Mysterious Flame apart from a sentimental journey. Eco raises questions about how national culture shapes individual minds, and the ways those minds can entertain multiple visions of the world while forming their own points of view. These are academic questions, of course, but they remain grounded in Yambo's personal experience, and as the blanks get filled in, Eco's initially cerebral exercise becomes unexpectedly moving. Yambo finds some answers, while others elude him, and eventually he becomes fixated on remembering the face of his first love. In time, he becomes a Dante pursuing his Beatrice in the underworld of his own mind, and his quest for a specific kind of truth takes on shades of a universal search for meaning.