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'The Prague Cemetery': Complex portrait of conspiracy

As a novelist and literary theorist, Umberto Eco has explored the realms of writers, the roles of readers, and the fate of facts and fiction in the real world.

From the book jacket
From the book jacketRead more

By Umberto Eco

Translated by Richard Dixon

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 444 pp. $27

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Reviewed by Arthur J. Sabatini

As a novelist and literary theorist, Umberto Eco has explored the realms of writers, the roles of readers, and the fate of facts and fiction in the real world.

Books, for Eco, are complicated games that entertain while raising serious questions about how human beings use language, tell stories, and form beliefs.

What if, Eco asks in his 1988 novel, Foucault's Pendulum, the history of modern Europe as we know it is interrelated with a vast conspiracy perpetuated for centuries through secret societies such as the Knights Templar?

And what if, he proposes with darker overtones in The Prague Cemetery, a sinister and vicious work of fiction is accepted as a "true" historical document, then instigates decades of racial hatred and persecution and contributes to the rationale for war and mass extermination?

Of course, there was such a book, first serialized in a Russian newspaper in 1903. It consisted of 22 short chapters filled with a thoroughly inconsistent and impossible (if not idiotic) account of a "Jewish" plot to take over the world, no less. Within three years, it was reprinted in five different editions and eventually translated into every European language. The book appealed as much to the rampant anti-Semitism of the era as to the deeply ingrained attraction to conspiracy theories that circulated then, as now.

Although thoroughly debunked, the book went through numerous editions, feeding into the perennial type of stupidity the machinery of popular culture knows how to exploit. Curiously, it was not signed and, despite exhaustive investigations, to this day the writer or writers of what is known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion remains anonymous.

In The Prague Cemetery, Eco constructs a fast and furious, fact-filled novel that fictionalizes an author of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion while relating the historical circumstances that gave rise to anti-Semitism in 19th-century Europe. In recent studies, Eco is credited as having pieced together some of the origins of the Protocols from the writings of Alexander Dumas and a popular French author, Eugene Sue. Dumas appears in The Prague Cemetery, and Eco boasts that "all the characters except one," the creepy forger who is the supposed author, are real, as are names of publications and historical incidents. (As Eco knows, today's readers will spend hours online tracking down the veracity of such figures as Diana Vaughan, the satanically possessed Freemason; the Russian czar's secret police organization, the Okhrana; and more - as if Internet sites separate fact from fiction).

The novel opens in 1897 on a sordid backstreet in Paris. A vile, misanthropic 67-year-old Italian forger, who freely demeans Germans, French, Italians, Jesuits, Freemasons, women, and, above all, Jews, is writing in his diary. His name is Captain Simonini and his pleasure is French cuisine, often described in great detail. Simonini is in crisis. He keeps finding letters and notes he remembers neither writing nor receiving. He is troubled by discussions on trauma he has with a young physician, whom he calls Froïde. Simonini owns wigs, fake eyebrows, a cassock, and the suspicion that he is someone else. Two chapters later, a scandalized priest, the Abbé Della Piccola, begins a diary himself and pens entries that offer his versions of events that Simonini relates. They might be the same person, suffering from illnesses Dr. Froïde studies.

Simonini's life story begins in Turin in the 1830s, where his "warty"-nosed grandfather spews hatred of the French Revolution, Jews, and the modern world. A bitter Royalist who grew up among Jews in the Piedmont region and a follower of the conspiracy theories of Abbé Barruel, he tells Simonini how the schemes of the Templars, Freemasons, and Jesuits, "corrupted" by the Bavarian Illuminati, influenced Voltaire and others to revolt against monarchies and establish godless republics that then could be accused of being anti-Christian. Simonini's grandfather supplies Barruel with a poisonous new piece of the conspiracy puzzle: All the plots are supported by the "Hebrew sect."

Simonini carries this "secret" with him throughout his life as he becomes a spy, double agent, forger, murderer, and nefarious scoundrel who is a participant or witness to every revolutionary event in 19th century Europe. He informs on Garibaldi's Italian unification campaign, works against the rebels of the 1848 revolutions, double-crosses the Communards in Paris in 1870, and contributes to the anti-Semitic tracts and newspapers that surround the Dreyfus Affair.

The ultimate insider, Simonini contributes to the ploys of Jesuits and Masons, Republicans and secret police, deluded writers and greedy publishers from every country. He reveals how conspiracy theories are created and perpetuated. There is, he explains, a "Universal Form of Conspiracy" and the history of 19th-century Europe is proof that it worked against a familiar scapegoat, the Jews.

As the plot advances, the marshaling of historical fact becomes the novel's weakness. By having Simonini encounter scores of criminals, corrupt priests, and swindlers, the reader - not unlike the exasperated Abbé Della Piccola - gets lost in the labyrinth of his accounts. Fortunately, or suspiciously, Eco includes an afterword with "Useless Learned Explanations" and a semi-useful chart of the entire story and plot. The book also contains nearly 60 illustrations, from drawings by Daumier to lurid pulp-fiction sketches to reprints from anti-Semitic newspapers and books, that engagingly sidetrack the reader.

Ultimately, Eco's serious concerns emerge. He shows how the repetition of lies and false histories, like the recirculation of plots in fiction, creates a sense of increasing familiarity that causes people to believe in the story, not the facts. He also offers a warning that the days of the "Universal Form of Conspiracy" may continue as long as humans remain ignorant of history and yield to mindless hatred.