Eco falls flat

Umberto Eco’s latest novel turns out not quite a treat.

Man reading (illustrative) 521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Man reading (illustrative) 521
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
I rush ed for Umberto Eco ’s latest novel with more than usual anticipation. Eco after all is a masterfully inventive storyteller (“The Name of the Rose,” “Foucault’s Pendulum”) and an essayist- scholar of breathtaking range and erudition. Beyond that, “The Prague Cemetery” is a historical novel centered on the origins of that specious but apparently indestructible anti-Semitic tract, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Oh boy, I was in for a treat.
As it turned out, not quite a treat. Eco is always interesting, but I found my interest repeatedly flagging in this long, repetitious book. Periodic bursts of ingenuity, action and even humor kept me going. But these were mild compensation for the scores upon scores of flat characters, the upended file cabinets of historical arcana and the overall numbing insanity that underlies the narrative.
Observing the insane is amusing only up to a point. With the exception of the main character, one Simone Simonini, everyone in this novel is a historical figure and the vast majority of them is pathologically bent. That Europe has a long history as a collective madhouse is not news. So just what are we supposed to take away from “The Prague Cemetery”?
Here’s what I mean: The republicans plot against the monarchists who plot against the liberals who plot against the Templars who plot against the Jesuits who plot against the Freemasons who plot against the Roman Catholics who plot against the communists who plot against the Protestants who plot against the French who plot against the Germans who plot against the Russians and behind every plot are the Jews who are plotting to take over the world. It’s enough, if you’ll forgive me, to make you plotz.
Watching paranoids do their thing over such a long stretch of pages really isn’t all that fascinating. Precisely how much time do you wish to spend among folks who maintain that Napoleon was Jewish? That Jesus was a Celt? That the Alliance Israelite Universelle is the Elders of Zion in disguise? In addition, Eco covered much of this territory with much greater energy and creativity in “Foucault’s Pendulum.” Maybe the problem this time is the author’s decision to hew so closely to historical accuracy (history is not necessarily the most artful of novelists). Whatever the case, all those intrigues among the Bourbons, the Garibaldians, the Carbonari, the royalists, the Piedmontese and the Sicilians that take up the first half of the book simply failed to resonate with this non-Italian – even if the Jews were behind all the conflicts. But in fact they weren’t and, accordingly, virtually no Jews appear in the novel.
Jew-haters do appear throughout the book, although in my view Jew-haters, being so simple-minded, are a lot less interesting than Jews. The prime mover in Eco’s daisy-chain of ditzes is the aforementioned Simone Simonini of Turin. This fictional character is the grandson of an actual figure, a reactionary Captain Simonini who was paranoid about a Jewish threat, supposedly cooked up by rabbis in Prague’s old Jewish cemetery, to his beloved church and monarchy. Various political and religious forces are interested in the captain’s “documentary evidence” of the Jewish plot, the details of which will be changed every so often to suit contemporary pathologies.
Simonini soon enough is fabricating letters and dossiers and whatnot for whatever cause and for whomever will pay. Eventually he moves to Paris. There he’s employed by various secret services as a spy, a double agent, a triple agent, a quadruple agent. Why does he do all this? As noted earlier, he’s crazy. How crazy? He spends half his life as another person entirely, an eminently duplicitous priest called Abbe Dalla Piccola. Plots thicken. Gruesome murders occur. Satanic rituals are observed. A certain irritation sets in.
Eco does his best to enliven the proceedings with cameo appearances by such personages as Alexander Dumas and Victor Hugo, references to Sigmund Freud and Alfred Dreyfus (naturally Eco has Simonini forge the letter that condemns Dreyfus), course-by-course reports on fabulous meals (complete with recipes), the inclusion of some 60 line drawings from the semiotician’s famed collection (quite fascinating), and touches of wry humor, such as:
“Although he was drunk by this time, Bataille managed to work out that the total number of devils and she-devils was 44,435,556. We checked his calculation, admitting with surprise that he was right, and he banged his fist on the table and shouted, ‘You see then, I’m not drunk!’ He was so pleased with himself that he slid under the table.”
But the nice touches can’t quite make up for the perfunctory characterizations, the repetitive actions and, above all, the mind-numbing and utterly predictable litany of libels against Jews. Indeed, not long ago I read for the first time (and I trust for the last time) the actual “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and found it at once profoundly stupid and stupefyingly dull. Eco’s anti-Semitic scribes, like their reallife counterparts, tend to babble. I don’t deny the damage they did (and still do). I simply state that, unless the reader is already predisposed to paranoia, their babblings rather quickly become uninteresting.
Eco’s point in detailing all this blather surely isn’t that anti-Semitic polemicists are a bunch of wackos – we never doubted that. Was it to alert us to the fact that such rantings are still with us? Anyone with an Internet connection knows that as well. Then was his aim – as it was in such novels as “The Name of the Rose” – chiefly to entertain? Maybe. But “Rose” was written 30 years ago, when its author’s imagination apparently was springier and his erudition was won more lightly than it is today. Whatever the case, Eco clearly does not succeed in engaging the reader this time. •