The Prague Cemetery
By Umberto Eco
Translated by Richard Dixon
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 445 pages. $28
There’s no hiding it: Umberto Eco is a lousy novelist. Try as one may, it is difficult to make sense of his new novel, “The Prague Cemetery.” As is often the case with him, the plot is built as a mystery of sorts, on this occasion the quest to discover the true author of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” an anti-Semitic pamphlet that remains one of the world’s biggest hoaxes and whose true author remains unknown. Oddly, Eco is less interested in solving the puzzle than in incensing his readers. The protagonist’s anti-Semitic rampage, running through hundreds of pages, appears to be a parody. But the joke is impossible to decode. Worse, it isn’t funny!
Eco’s novels like to contemplate entire centuries. “The Name of the Rose,” by far his best, takes place in an Italian monastery in the 14th century. The background of apparently abstruse medieval philosophical discussions — from the way Aristotle was eclipsed in Europe until he was rescued by Arabs such as Averroes, to Thomas Aquinas’s understanding of the divine — flits effortlessly into the foreground while these philosophies make themselves fundamental and uncannily modern.
When I first read it, in Spanish, shortly after publication, it was a revelation. Eco’s erudition was enviable. He was as comfortable discussing James Joyce as he was analyzing Superman and detective fiction. His hermeneutical talent, it seemed then, was put to fine use in this homage to Sherlock Holmes. Indeed, I decided to devote my graduate studies to Maimonides and Spinoza in large part inspired by Eco. He was a professor unafraid to chart new territory. And that new territory wasn’t always the past.
He then moved to other eras for his novels: “Baudolino” had the Crusades, and “The Island of the Day Before” took the 17th century. Conspiracies are his forte: “Foucault’s Pendulum” works around the 10 Sefirot and other kabbalistic motifs. Similarly, “The Prague Cemetery,” admirably translated by Richard Dixon, rotates around the fictitious persona of Captain Simone Simonini, a professional hater and, according to Eco, the creator of the “Protocols.”
The problem is that, like most of Eco’s other narrators, Simonini is mechanical as a literary character, even though his brutality, strange affectations and obsession with food make him occasionally intriguing. However, occasionally isn’t enough. He talks but doesn’t move. And his internal inaction makes the reader snooze.
Yes, there are intrigues orchestrated by Masonic sects. There are references to the Dreyfus Affair. There are conspiracies, Satanic cults, bizarre rituals and other strange happenings. And there are curious twists. At one point, for instance, during a Munich beer festival, two of Europe’s most eloquently virulent anti-Semites look at each other as if they are Jews. Disgusted by these porcine, beer-swilling Germans, Captain Simonini, who hates progress (except insofar as it has produced a porcelain toilet that will allow him to sit for his performances), assumes they are members of “an inferior race.” But all these sly historical maneuverings get thin. Repeating the term “the Final Solution” a hundred times goes from ironic to trite and, finally, to decidedly repugnant.
Eco’s erudition is unquestionable. The question is what he does with it. And, once again, the answer is little. Even the publisher, in its back-cover description, stresses the encyclopedica nature of the book rather than its artistic qualities. “A remarkable journey through the underbelly of world-shattering events,” the reader is told. In truth, it feels like an LSD-induced trip by a paranoid who spends far too many hours tweaking Wikipedia entries. At first there is joy in the sheer vastness of the intellect that comes to play. Unfortunately, the joy lasts barely a millisecond.