Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Book Review : The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (Harvard Secker 2011)

I remember receiving The Name of the Rose as a Christmas present back in the 1980s and finishing it around 5am on Boxing Day, captivated by the cleverness of it all, so allusive, playful, dark and learned. After Foucault's Pendulum was released, a fellow Eco-afficianado and I rushed to the Musée des Arts et Métiers at lunchtime whilst on a training course in Paris in order to gaze at the Pendulum itself, and the site of the novel's dénouement.

Since then, Eco's works have frustrated as much as entertained. All have displayed his vast erudition, yet none has captured the energy and inventiveness of his earlier narratives. His last book, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, even sought to recapture this lost elan through discarding medieval texts in favour of the cartoon storybooks of Eco's childhood, with only partial success.

The Prague Cemetery, however, promised to be a return to familiar territory, the conspiracy theories and secret societies so effectively spiked in Foucault's Pendulum. It is the tale of a spy and master-forger, who is responsible in part for all the most important conspiracies of the late nineteenth century from the reunification of Italy to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Being Eco, all the characters except for Simonini, the antisemitic protagonist, really existed. Being Eco, though, one needs a fair knowledge of 19th century history in order to separate fact from fiction from conjecture and invention.

The historical parts of the novel are great: they race along engagingly, and, as Dan Brown knows, there is a ready appetite for even the most bizarre conspiracies, factually based or not. Simonini plots with the Carbonari, follows Garibaldi's troops through Italy, is the mastermind behind Leo Taxil's antimasonic Satanic fantasies and writes both Dreyfuss's incriminating letter and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, whilst introducing us to several of the most unsavoury peripheral characters in France and Italy in this period. In actual fact, Eco carefully charts the links between Freemasonry and the movement for Italian reunification, and how it  subsequently become linked with anti-jewish propaganda through the works of Maurice Joly via novelists Dumas and Sue, and Taxil's wilder fantasies, culminating in the Protocols. Even allowing for some flights of fancy, notably some murders and a racy black mass, this is heady stuff.

The problem, though, is with the novel's superstructure. It is supposedly the recollections of Simonini, interspersed with the diary of a Jesuit priest by the name of Dalla Piccola with whom Simonini shares a flat but who may only be an alter-ego or a figment of Simonini's imagination. You know that there is an issue here when Eco presents us with a table in an appendix to try to tie together the diaries, recollections and actual events. It simply doesn't work, and detracts, especially in the first part of the book, from the otherwise engaging narrative. There is a sense that Eco actually has several themes he wants to write about - il Risorgimento, the Paris Commune, Freemasonry and the anti-Jewish conspiracies, and this is the only way that he can shoe-horn them together, when in fact it is unnecessary. Eco doesn't generally do character much and this is no exception, and ultimately the endless successions of names becomes overwhelming. Which is a pity as the material unearthed by Eco is fascinating, and with better organisation it could even give Dan Brown a run for his money, perish the thought...

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