Looking Forward to the Past

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco; drawing by David Levine

Milan, 1991. A man wakes up after an accident yet feels he is “still suspended in a milky gray”—a grayness he seeks to evoke by quoting a dozen or so literary descriptions of fog. Finally aware that he is in a hospital bed, the man is able to answer a number of questions posed to him by a doctor in order to check whether his mind is working. He cites the Pythagorean theorem, mentions Euclid’s elements, quotes spontaneously from Moby-Dick and The Waste Land, but cannot remember his own name. The doctor explains that while retaining his “semantic memory,” everything, that is, learned in the form of publicly available factual knowledge, he has lost his private or personal memory. He doesn’t know whether he is married or not, has no recollection of his parents or of the various episodes of his life, no recall of the thousand small personal activities in which one engages every day: brushing teeth, driving a car, getting dressed.

Fortunately, the man’s legal identity is not at issue. He is Giambattista Bodoni, nicknamed Yambo. At fifty-nine he is a successful dealer in antique books, married to a psychologist, Paola, with two daughters and three grandchildren who soon come to visit him in the hospital. He observes them with equanimity but without interest and at one point, even as he caresses his grandchildren, his head fills with “a maelstrom of memories that were not mine”:

The marchioness went out at five o’clock in the middle of the journey of our life, Abraham begat Isaac and Isaac begat Jacob and Jacob begat the man of La Mancha, and that was when I saw the pendulum betwixt a smile and tear, on the branch of Lake Como where late the sweet birds sang, the snows of yesteryear softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves, messieurs les Anglais je me suis couché de bonne heure, though words cannot heal the women come and go….

This babble goes on for a full page. Yambo’s is no ordinary case of amnesia. He is, as it were, an encyclopedic mind without a self, rather as if the accident had happened to the erudite Eco himself. At once the book becomes a quest: Yambo must rediscover himself. In doing so, we presume that we will be enlightened about what exactly a self is and how it stands in relation to the collective or public mind represented by Yambo/Eco’s erudition.

In the past Eco’s novels have involved virtuoso reconstructions of historically distant worlds—the Middle Ages, the seventeenth century—with an authorial voice that hints at the fictional nature of the work; in the case of The Island of the Day Before he actually advises the reader not to take the book’s contents too seriously. The novel was thus a form of playground where a thick web of intrigue and lighthearted intellectual speculation was woven…

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