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144 of 172 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Eco at his second best, September 24, 2011
This review is from: The Prague Cemetery (Hardcover)
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Commenting on any work by Umberto Eco is a daunting task. Eco's massive
learning, deployed in each of his books not to impress but to reinforce
the depth and complexity of his thought, as well as the intricacy of
the narrative structures he delights in creating, combine to force doubt
and uncertainty in the mind of a reviewer--have I missed something crucial?
Are the subtleties too remote for my comprehension? Of course, these are
good problems to have, since they are part of the constant pleasure of reading
Eco (whether nonfiction or fiction), and recognizing them as signals that the
characteristics of Eco's work are present in this latest novel.

The Prague Cemetery purports to be the memories of a man of the 19th century,
or arguably two men, since we are shown that "Captain Simonini" is also
"Abbe Dalla Piccola" --though neither of the two men understands at first how
they can both inhabit the same body--but they are a case of multiple personality
disorder, comparable to a woman (Diana) who is being studied and exploited by
psychologists and clerics who find her two personalities (one a "Satanist" who
follows a sect of Freemasons, the other a pious and devout Catholic who is
horrified by the behavior of her alternate personality). The fact that Captain
Simonini encounters a certain "Froide," who is a psychologist working with
the famous Charcot in Paris, reinforces the novel's interest in the transition
from older forms of psychic research (uses of hypnosis by Mesmer and his followers)
toward the "talking cure" and acceptance of the importance of dreams and childhood
trauma in the exploration of adult emotional psychopathology.

Simonini is at the center of this intricate plot, which begins with his self-introduction
and an extended tirade--alternately repulsive and hilarious--in which he establishes
himself as one who loathes and despises nearly every group and nationality he has
encountered in Europe--he deploys the national and ethnic stereotypes familiar from
all expressions of bigotry, and he repeats these corrosive hatreds throughout the
novel at almost every occasion when he encounters a member of a group he finds
subhuman and inferior to, especially, himself. Among these, he includes all women,
of any race or ethnic group, and regularly expresses his horror at the thought of
close contact with any woman (though he never shows any sign of attraction to his
own sex, either). His most powerful and profound hatred, however, is directed toward
the Jews, and that constitutes the driving force of the whole narrative of his
life and activities. He hates the Catholic Church, especially the Jesuit order,
and Freemasons, as well, and this convenient group of targets he uses by exploiting
their rivalries and by setting them against each other through his
schemes and publications, leading finally to his "masterpiece," the combination of
dozens, even hundreds of anti-semitic tirades into what would become the infamous
Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (The vituperative remarks by Simonini toward so
many groups make him somewhat reminiscent of Thomas Bernhard's narrative voices
in such works as Concrete and Old Masters, but also of William Gass's repellent
narrator in The Tunnel. I don't mean to suggest imitation, here, but simply that
there are other characters of similar unpleasantness.)

Simonini, by disguising himself, as well as by employing his alternative persona,
Abbe Dalla Piccola, becomes embroiled at various points (after leaving Italy, where
he had been involved in trying to undermine the unification efforts of Garibaldi and
his cohorts) in the secretive activities of various spy networks--the Prussians,
the Russians, the French, and so on, and in each case, it becomes clear that spies
and secret services have no particular loyalty to any government--in fact, a principle
of successful spy activity seems to be that one must always be ready to transfer one's
services to the next government in power. The various assignments Simonini receives
from his controllers set him to encouraging activities by anti-Catholic, anti-Freemason,
and anti-semitic groups and writers, all of whose works he encourages by offering his
own (or his grandfather's) well-worn writings. Another principle of such hate-mongering
is that it does not matter whether the claims or stories are true or not, nor does it
matter even if they are cribbed from fictions, since the readers who seek them out want
only to have their preconceptions confirmed, and they will read and re-read minor variations
on the same old legends and lies, finding that the familiarity of the stories is
confirmation that they must be true. Recycling narratives is a sure method for attracting
true believers.) Simonini uses an old "legend" of gatherings of rabbis in the Jewish
cemetery in Prague, where they reinforce their beliefs in the inevitable "victory"
of the Jews as they describe the many ways in which Jews will infiltrate all institutions of
Gentile society until they are entirely in control of all political, social, economic, and
educational structures, and thereby dominant throughout the world. This is the "doctrine" of
the Protocols, of course, and Simonini's variations on them lead to his final composition.

The chronology of The Prague Cemetery is complicated in that Simonini and Dalla Piccola are
writing a "diary" in 1897 that attempts to reconstruct (from other notes and documents)
the activities of the preceding forty years, including Simonini's involvement in the
Garibaldian campaigns in Italy, later the Paris Commune as well as other developments
during the tumultuous post-Napoleonic period in France, as well as trying to work out their
relationship to each other and the implications of trying to keep secret the murders and
other activities they have both been involved in.

As I began to read this novel, I almost immediately said to myself that I felt as though
I were back in high school, reading a novel that I had found in the library, Eugene Sue's
The Wandering Jew. It is a novel of complex intrigues and skullduggery, variously
condemning the influence of Jesuits, the Papacy, the Freemasons, and other groups--very
much the roster included in Simonini's rants. Sure enough, as early as page 61, we encounter
our first direct reference to that novel--one title among many (by Dumas and Hugo, especially)
that will occur throughout; the literary world of Paris late in the 19th century is also
shown to be deeply imbued with anti-semitism, indicating Eco's apparent view that no
element of European society, whether aristocratic, capitalist, socialist, or laboring
class can be exempt from the beliefs in conspiracies and exploitation by the Jews
against all the rest of society.

We are told in an endnote that except for Simonini and several minor characters, all the
characters and incidents in this novel are based in historical fact, and all represent
the "secret history" of the evolution of the more powerful and insidious versions of
anti-semitism--leading directly to the "Final Solution"--in Europe. Eco does not suggest
that the Church nor the many variations and sects of Freemasonry are entirely responsible
for the propagation of anti-semitic materials, but they are variously complicit because it
suits their purposes to attack their perceived opponents and to link those opponents to
already established negative groups--most conveniently, the Jews.

It won't do to repeat the incidents of this complex plot, but it is worth noting that
Eco's novel, this time, is negatively affected by the frequent repetition of what are
essentially the same rants--numerous extended and vituperative denunciations of
targeted groups are deployed at too many points of this work, making the reader shrug
after a while with a "here comes another one" feeling. Eco is certainly ingenious
in supplying variations and in using these rants as occasions for the launching of
new developments in Simonini's tortuous career. Even so, the repetitions are finally
counterproductive, and they account for the 4 (rather than 5) star ranking I have
offered here. Everything I have read by Eco has been rewarding in many ways, and
The Name of the Rose remains one of the very finest modern novels, in my view; in
this case, I wish Eco had been more sparing of repetition, as the novel would have
had a more powerful impact, I believe, if it had moved more efficiently from event to
event. Even so, Eco's fans will want to read this and will enjoy it, repulsive as
much of its subject matter must be.
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