In Britain Umberto Eco is chiefly known for “The Name of the Rose”, that brilliant detective story evoking, and depending on, the learned culture of the high Middle Ages in Western and Central Europe. By the way, if you’ve only seen the film, apart from Sean Connery’s restrained performance it’s a travesty and has got about as much in common with the book as a nursery rhyme with Hamlet (only nursery rhymes are short). I’d got the impression he was a bit of a one-book sensation: “Foucault’s Pendulum” had got the kind of reception common for disappointing follow-ups to a masterpiece, like “Shardik” following “Watership Down”.
I was wrong. “The Prague Cemetery” is brilliant and extremely readable.
As with “The Name of the Rose”, Eco has more than done his homework. His story reeks of the unstable politics of the middle to late 19th century in Europe. He states that most of the characters are real people.
His main character, Captain Simonini, a Northern Italian spending most of his life in Paris, is profoundly unpleasant. At any stage if chance or miscalculation had left him dead, I wouldn’t have been remotely bothered except it would have cut the book short. It’s remarkable that Eco can centre the story on such a uniformly unpleasant character and hold our attention.
Simonini is not exactly a spy, but he operates in the general area of spying and official skulduggery, while earning his daily bread forging wills. He has a very long list of hates – women, Jesuits, Freemasons, Germans, Jews – and the only thing he seems to really like is eating and drinking well – but he is never drunk. He has no religion and no secular ideals. He will do anything for money as long as it isn’t too dangerous or too distasteful. He befriends people and then kills them if it suits him.
He finds himself used by four different states, by the Catholic Church and by Freemasons, and he exploits and in part deceives them all. He loves inventing credible conspiracies and selling the information as true. He is the origin of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, the notorious forgery which presented the Jews as tightly-organised in pursuit of world domination. This was used to justify pogroms in Russia and then the Holocaust. Simonini would have been proud, if frustrated that he hadn’t made more money from it.
There is an clever passage early on where Simonini meets Sigmund Freud in his preaching-the-benefits-of-cocaine period. Freud’s theories (not on cocaine) seem relevant to a mystery that is maintained for most of the book. Simonini has a kind of double, a priest called Dalla Piccola, who seems to know everything he has done, reminds him of the worst things and condemns them.
It’s just brilliant. It must sound depressing and in a sense it is, but I enjoyed it. Why?