Review: The Prague Cemetery

Italy's most celebrated literary intellectual conjures up an incendiary mix of fact, fiction and postmodern provocation.


By David Herman, December 5, 2011
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Umberto Eco: erudite and playful

Umberto Eco: erudite and playful

By Umberto Eco
Harvill Secker, £20

Umberto Eco is still best known for the international best-seller, The Name of the Rose (1980), a medieval whodunnit, the first of his six novels. Some will also know Eco as a leading cultural critic, a prominent figure in the rise of Literary Theory during the 1970s and '80s. What his fiction and literary criticism have in common is a winning combination of tremendous erudition and delightful playfulness.

Eco's new novel is full of both. Set in 1890s' Paris, it tells the story of one of its inhabitants, Simone Simonini, Italian forger, vicious antisemite and misogynist. Through Simonini, we enter a world of crazed conspiracies and plots involving Jesuits, Freemasons and Jews.

He becomes involved in many major historical events: Italian Unification, the Dreyfus Affair and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He meets Garibaldi, Dumas and the young Freud, in Paris to study hysteria. As a master-forger, Simonini's services are sought by the French, Prussian and Russian secret services, which leads him into espionage and murder.

Even this is too simple for Eco. He takes these conspiracies and re-writes them in the style of the great French 19th-century historical novelists, Dumas, Hugo and Eugene Sue. And then he complicates it still further by adding three narrators, two of whom might be the same person, with one possibly murdered by another.

This is Eco at his postmodern best (or worst, according to taste). The novel is full of texts and manuscripts - diaries, forged documents and letters. Eco has always been fascinated by fakes and forgeries (one of his first critical books was called, Faith in Fakes) and this is not the first time he has been drawn to the weird world of the Protocols. The book is full of cultural and literary references and often it is hard to know whether we are dealing with fact or fiction. Right at the end, ever the showman, Eco reveals that nearly all his extraordinary characters "actually existed, and said and did what they are described as saying and doing in this novel." Does this cleverness stand up as well as it did in the 1980s, the high point of postmodernism? The novel has already sold over a million copies worldwide but there are problems, too.

First, to really enjoy it you should ideally have a university degree in modern European history, be soaked in French 19th-century literature and have a strangely informed interest in Freud and late 19th-century psychiatry.

A second reservation is more serious. Politically correct readers will not be the only ones who will turn away from the misogyny and perversity which runs through the book. There is not a single woman who is not presented through Simonini's eyes as being physically or morally revolting.

The issue of antisemitism is far more serious, still. One of the accusations made against postmodernism has always been that its playfulness trivialises real history and real suffering. This novel is largely about antisemitism. Simonini is involved in forging key documents in the stories of Dreyfus and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

But, although it is impossible to feel any sympathy for the antisemites in this novel, or for any of the crazy Jewish conspiracy theories they believe in, the question remains: Is this a suitable subject for playful postmodernism? When Eco names a crucial chapter, "The Final Solution", making a pun on solving the mysteries in the novel and the consequences of Simonini's forgeries, does it - or not - leave a nasty taste?

This dense, clever book tells a dark and unpleasant story. It is up to you whether you want to be immersed in the foul and crazed world of Simone Simonini and his forgeries.

David Herman is the JC's chief fiction reviewer. Umberto Eco will be appearing at Jewish Book Week 2012. Inquiries: www.kingsplace.co.uk or 0207 520 1490

Last updated: 12:04pm, December 5 2011