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Italian writer Umberto Eco listens to a question during the presentation of his latest novel "The Prague Cemetery" in Madrid on Dec. 13, 2010. (Reuters)
Italian writer Umberto Eco listens to a question during the presentation of his latest novel "The Prague Cemetery" in Madrid on Dec. 13, 2010. (Reuters)

Review: Fiction

A connoisseur of conspiracies Add to ...

This is unquestionably Umberto Eco’s most controversial novel, although not for the reasons so disingenuously suggested by L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper. Whatever else The Prague Cemetery might be, it is definitely not an anti-Semitic screed. Indeed, just as he did in Five Moral Pieces, Eco emphasizes the centrality of the Roman Catholic Church to the long, disgraceful history of Jewish persecution in the West. That people seemingly accepted John Paul II’s incomplete “apology” at face value is the world’s problem, not his.

In any case, the book’s real targets are the Jesuits, not the Jews, and even here Eco is being ironic since the Pope’s “shock troops” have themselves been accused everything from founding the Illuminati – an improbable sect of super-Masons said to have fomented the French Revolution, Catholic orthodoxy’s first secular foe – and even of sinking the Titanic (something similar happens in this book). Eco has long been a connoisseur of conspiracy theories (remember Foucault’s Pendulum?), and here he lets even the most outlandish of these off the leash.

This said, it must be admitted that the narrator is most definitely an anti-Semite. By Eco’s own admission, Simone Simonini is the only wholly imaginary character in a narrative in which this gleefully hateful agent provocateur rubs shoulders with the likes of Garibaldi, Alexandre Dumas père and even – Eco is hilariously vague about this – a young psychiatrist who just might be Sigmund Freud.

Most of the characters surrounding this sub-Flashman, however, are considerably less illustrious, consisting mainly of mad monks, racist bluebloods, practising Satanists and scuzzy spies working for the Okhrana, the czar’s notorious secret service (the concocting of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the aforesaid organization’s most notorious literary fraud, being one of The Prague Cemetery’s principal subtexts).

It is even insinuated that one of these unsavoury individuals, the Abbé Dalla Piccola, is actually Simonini’s doppelgänger, especially after a seemingly successful assassination attempt proves to have no lasting effect on the bad father’s literary output. Considering how he thinks and what he does, Simonini is a surprisingly engaging narrator. In part, this is because, like Richard III, he takes pride in his villainy, but mainly it’s because his hatreds are so astonishingly wide-ranging. Indeed, at times one has to wonder if there are any “we’s” in this paranoid landscape of endless “thems.”

Revealingly, Simonini explains how his reactionary grandfather taught him that the Jew was “as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a Gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmyk, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti….”

This inherited catalogue of dislikes is generously added to at every possible occasion. Thus, we learn, in regard to our anti-hero’s some-time employers, that “their abuse of beer makes them incapable of having the slightest notion of their vulgarity, and the height of this vulgarity is that they feel no shame at being German.”

As for Italians, they are “untrustworthy, lying, contemptible traitor[s]” while, even though he is supposedly fighting on their behalf against the Masons – the continental anti-Semite’s other traditional bête noire – the Jesuits are “[w]rst of all,” being “Masons dressed up as women.” (Simonini – surprise, surprise – is also very much a misogynist, his hatred of women beginning at a young age when a beautiful ghetto dweller mocked his already considerable girth.)

When you get right down to it, just about the only things Simonini does seem to approve of are good food and the French language. So, push comes to shove, he might well be in the hatred “business” primarily for the money (and he’s in it for a long time; the book begins in the 1830s and travels as far as the Dreyfus Affair).

Now, if a reasonable argument were to be advanced against this book, it would have to be this: Although Eco is clearly opposed to the actions of the hate-mongers he depicts, isn’t it just possible that an uneducated person might get the wrong idea? To which the only honest answer is, “Of course they might. On the other hand, how many rednecks read Umberto Eco novels?”

Mark Harris wrote his doctoral dissertation on how French and Italian authors have traditionally written about the United States, texts that themselves sometimes resembled “conspiracy novels.”

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