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Disgusting, repulsive, soul-sickening . . . and yet a masterpiece,
This review is from: The Prague Cemetery (Hardcover)
Anyone who knows something about the history of the Holocaust has thought about how it could have been possible for anti-Semitism to grow so virulent and obsessive that it resulted in an all-encompassing attempt to obliterate the Jewish people. Umberto Eco's deeply disturbing novel throws a light on the seething history that laid the groundwork. (Though this is called a novel, Eco tells us that except for the protagonist, Simonini, and a few minor characters, the characters and most of the events described are factually valid.)
In a dense and complex plot, Eco places Simonini, a deeply misanthropic, gluttonous and venal forger, at the center of conspiracies in late 19th-century Europe that pit royalists, republicans, Freemasons, Jesuits, Catholics, Protestants and other groups against each other in ruthless efforts to gain primacy. Simonini disdains sex, friendship, loyalty, faith and any kind of moral code other than self-interest. His only love is that of food, and the book is filled with mouth-watering descriptions of mostly Parisian cuisine, which are jarringly disconcerting, as they are nearly always given as asides while Simonini is in full flow of a near-hysterical rant against one group or another.
After several years being at the beck and call of amoral secret police agencies in Italy and France, creating forged documents for them to use against the enemy of the moment, Simonini decides that what he needs is a way to accumulate a principal sum of 300,000 francs, the interest from which will keep him in comfort for life.
Through his experiences, Simonini has come to realize a key truth, which is that people will always believe a conspiracy theory that confirms their own prejudices; i.e., reinforces what they already "know." The most successful conspiracy stories, he tells us, re-use familiar tales. But how to devise a conspiracy story that will be a real money maker? He wants something that he can sell to the widest possible market. The answer is to devise a conspiracy story that can be made to appeal to royalists, republicans, socialists, Freemasons, Jesuits, and the various state and papal powers alike. To accomplish that, he decides that the central villain in the story must be the Jews.
Simonini spins old legends into the document that becomes the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that appalling fiction about a worldwide Jewish conspiracy to rule the world that was widely republished and circulated in the early part of the 20th century, including by America's Henry Ford.
Though Eco's work here is masterful and riveting, it's impossible to read about such incorrigible hatefulness without feeling sick. The never-ending fulminations of Simonini and other characters--and the reader's knowledge that the hatred and conspiracy theories just went on and on until they climaxed in the orgy of the Holocaust---is emotionally exhausting. Then you think of the people in today's world who are just as cynical and venal as Simonini, and the hordes of people who swallow the same vile libels, and it's unutterably depressing. But Eco's genius is that he so successfully puts the reader in the head of Simononi and the other depraved characters he deals with, and makes one feel the pulse of this tumultuous time in history.
You will never re-read this book. You will never recommend it to anyone. You will eagerly anticipate reading something as different from it as possible as soon as you can. And yet, it must be acknowledged that it is an impressive achievement and an essential work, of particular interest to anyone who is a student of modern European history.