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.
All of which is a pity. As a reviewer, I have little to expound other than a variety of disquisitions on why the Jews (or Freemasons, or Protestants) are controlling the world. Eco had the unique opportunity to delve into anti-Semitism as a topic in order to understand its causes and consequences. His interest isn’t only in why the “Protocols” was written. He also ponders the reasons behind the fact that an entire continent, Europe, fell prey to it and why its grip has not been loosened in the century since it was unequivocally proven to be a fake.
Eco, it appears, is intrigued by the treacheries of Victorian thought. In the novel, he wants to present the irrational side of a Western civilization that was profiting hugely from the Age of Reason and the revolutions of science and technology. What ingredients were necessary to make such intellectual forgery as this anti-Semitic tract a devastatingly explosive bomb?
Those interested in an answer must look elsewhere, to works by Stephen Eric Bronner, Hadassah Ben-Itto, B.W. Segel, Mark Weitzman and Steven Katz, among others. Even Will Eisner’s graphic novel, “The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” although the product of a cartoonist, is more enlightening. Expectedly, Eco is a fan of Eisner. If only he had learned from him how to be humble!
Eco’s reputation as a semiotician is assured. His dissertations on language are enormously influential. And his reflections on translation, although at times obtuse, are path-opening. Recently, I came across a couple of extraordinary illustrated books by him, a history of beauty and a history of ugliness. The last one in particular is a treasure-trove of images and insightful reflections. Nevertheless, as a novelist he seems content to gesture to the exciting realms of possible fantasy without being able to create a believable character to take us along.