The Prague Cemetery

The Prague Cemetery
Umberto Eco
Reviewed by Danny Arter
Harvill Secker
Thu, 03/11/2011
9781846554919
£20.00

Umberto Eco’s latest novel, to summarise, simply cannot be summarised. A bulky, heavy undertaking begins with Eco’s claim that the book will have two kinds of reader. The first kind is one who is ignorant that the events of the novel actually happened (Eco is at pains to stress that they certainly did happen, insisting that all characters besides the central protagonist are based on real people), someone who “knows nothing about nineteenth-century literature, and might even have taken Dan Brown seriously”. The second kind of reader, Eco claims, will have ample familiarity with the events as they unfold, a learned scholar who understands the significance of profound historical happenings which have shaped Europe’s consciousness to this day.

The novel is translated from Eco’s Italian and is far from brief: it is a work very much aware of its literariness. Eco’s prose is in staunch opposition to that of the aforementioned Brown – lengthy sentences perambulate on the margins of a point, deviating with little relevance. Fault for this may lie with the translator or the editor, granted, but one thing is for sure: an easy read it is not.

Nor is Eco’s ambition any less lofty with the subject matter; he condenses forgery, conspiracies and anti-semitism with the aid of Simone Simonini, the central figure and “the most hateful man in the world”, in Eco’s own words. The novel opens with Simone ranting with profusion (and a degree of humour, admittedly) against those who he despises – which is virtually every nationality, ethnicity and religious group in Europe. And yet Simonini is not as he appears. He is also, seemingly, Abbe Dalla Piccola, suffering from a bout of multiple personality disorder.

The group for whom Simonini reserves his greatest disdain is the Jews, though the Catholic Church and the Freemasons would figure highly on the scale, too. He is able, as the plot unfolds, to manipulate their rivalries in order to pit them against each other, and to create his masterpiece: the amalgamation of numerous anti-semitic tirades, which forms the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

It all sounds rather Dan Brown, doesn’t it?

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