Rebecca Newberger Goldstein
Umberto Eco's latest fiction, The Prague Cemetery, is choreographed by a truth that is itself so strange a novelist need hardly expand on it to produce a wondrous tale…This is not to say that Eco doesn't earn points for inventiveness, nor that a novel can't succeed on other grounds. It is just to say that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction…even if the best parts of The Prague Cemetery are those he did not invent, Eco is to be applauded for bringing this stranger-than-fiction truth vividly to life.
The New York Times Book Review
Eco’s latest takes as its focal point the creation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous and discredited document used by anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists everywhere as proof of a worldwide Jewish cabal. His fictional main character, Simone Simonini, is a spy, a forger, a murderer, and a misanthrope, whose deep hatred of the Jews (for starters) drives him to cobble together the Protocols from the actual texts of historical figures like Maurice Joly, Abbé Augustin Barruel, and Léo Taxil. Complicating matters is Simonini’s gradual realization that he is suffering from a split personality, dividing his time between his conspiratorial acts as the self-anointed “Captain” Simonini and as a suspicious priest, Abbé Dalla Piccola. What follows is an overstuffed, intriguing, hilarious, and frustrating glimpse into the turbulent power struggles of late 19th-century Europe and the imagined path to one of the most notorious documents of the early 20th century. Readers of Eco’s oeuvre will no doubt be familiar with, and most likely welcome as a challenge, the author’s insistence on cluttering his narrative with what can only be characterized as intellectual braggadocio. Such extemporaneous information certainly adds to the sense of place and the awareness of being told a tale by a master, but the narrative gets lost in the details. While no one expects Dan Brown simplicity from Eco, his desire to impress—and demand so much of—his readers sometimes works against his best intentions. Illus. (Nov. 8)
From the Publisher
"[Eco's] latest takes that longtime thriller darling, the conspiracy theory, and turns it into something grander...Sold to 40 countries and said to be controversial; a speed-read with smarts."Library Journal, Pre-Pub Alert, "My Picks"
"A whirlwind tour of conspiracy and political intrigue...this dark tale is delightfully embellished with sophisticated and playful commentary on, among other things, Freud, metafiction, and the challenges of historiography."Booklist
"Intriguing, hilarious....a tale by a master."Publishers Weekly boxed review "He's got a humdinger in this new high-level whodunit...a perplexing, multilayered, attention-holding mystery."Kirkus, starred "I find this book fascinating, perhaps the best Eco has written in years. Eco takes on conspiracy theories in the feverish political activism of nineteenth-century Europefreemasonry, the Italian Risorgimento, the Paris Commune, and above all the forgery of the slanderous The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. What if there were a single mastermind behind all these conspiracies? It's already a bestseller in Italy, and I can't get enough of it!"Huffington Post "The Prague Cemetery is vintage Eco….Eco, the star bookworm of our times, has used his genius for excavating libraries to construct a semifictional narrative of how The Protocols might have evolved….The Prague Cemetery is at once entertainment, education, and warning. As usual, Eco has enjoyed himself. The narrative is vivid, shocking, sometimes baffling. It’s loaded ….with learned Eco disquisitions on bomb-making, the Paris sewers, the history of the Commune, the taxonomical distinctions between ladies on the game (grisettes, cocottes, biches, lorettes, and courtesans), early theories of brain function, and so forth. But as a genealogy showing how The Protocols evolved from the nightmares bequeathed to Europe by medieval heresy-hunting (the subject of The Name of the Rose), the book is a triumph."New York Review of Books
In late 19th-century Paris, Captain Simonini suspects that he's sharing his apartment with a certain Abbé Dalla Piccola—or is the abbé merely an alter ego helping him recall a story he'd rather forget? As Simonini works through his past (pretty much Europe's as well) we learn of a childhood shaped by hatred—his grandfather of the Jews, his Carbonari father of the Jesuits—and of the notary who plundered the family fortune, compelling young Simonini to work in his office. Beating his employer at his own game, Simonini quickly enters a career of betraying various sides to various bidders and eventually crafts a tale about rabbis plotting in the Prague cemetery that foreshadows the Protocols of Zion. By telling the story of this behind-the-scenes opportunist, Eco shows how easily entrenched prejudice can be exploited, distracting from cold, hard truth. VERDICT This is fascinating stuff, but there's such a thick impasto of historic detail that we sometimes miss the chill revulsion such revelations should arouse; what makes Eco sparkle (see Foucault's Pendulum, for instance) is how he uses ideas, not facts. But the serious minded will of course want to read and debate. [See Prepub Alert, 5/9/11.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Eco (The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, 2005, etc.) doffs his scholarly gown and dons his trench coat for another bracing--and controversial--mystery. Semiotician, medievalist and linguist, Eco delights in secret codes, cabals and conspiracy theories. He's got a humdinger in this new high-level whodunit, which features a fictional fellow--Simone Simonini by name--who wanders, darkly, throughout a late-19th-century Europe packed with very real people. Simonini, 67 years old when we meet him in 1897, is detestable. He's a study in suburban prejudices, among them a virulent strain of anti-Semitism, though, to be fair, he's got something bad to say about just about everyone: The Jew, he grumbles, is "as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a Gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmyk, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti." Did he leave out the Germans? No, they smell bad owing to a surfeit of beer and pork sausage. No one evades Simonini's withering glare, but it's the Jews he's really after, working farragos and guiles to stir up hatred against him through manufactured events up to and including the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that tract that gave the Nazis so much fuel for their fires. In an oddball but bravado performance, Eco makes Simonini--who doesn't like Freemasons or Jesuits either--many things: a forger, a master of disguise, a secret agent and double agent, a shadowy presence who's up to more than we'll ever know, and on top of all that quite a good cook--there are recipes for fine dishes tucked inside these pages, and recipes for bombs, too. Simonini also keeps good and interesting company, hanging out with Sigmund Freud here, crossing paths with Dumas and Garibaldi and Captain Dreyfus there, and otherwise enjoying the freedom of the continent, as if unstoppable and inevitable. What does it all add up to? An indictment of the old Europe, for one thing, and a perplexing, multilayered, attention-holding mystery. Expect it to find many readers.
Read an Excerpt
A PASSERBY ON THAT GRAY MORNING
A passerby on that gray morning in March 1897, crossing, at his own risk and peril, place Maubert, or the Maub, as it was known in criminal circles (formerly a center of university life in the Middle Ages, when students flocked there from the Faculty of Arts in Vicus Stramineus, or rue du Fouarre, and later a place of execution for apostles of free thought such as Étienne Dolet), would have found himself in one of the few spots in Paris spared from Baron Haussmann’s devastations, amid a tangle of malodorous alleys, sliced in two by the course of the Bièvre, which still emerged here, flowing out from the bowels of the metropolis, where it had long been confined, before emptying feverish, gasping and verminous into the nearby Seine. From place Maubert, already scarred by boulevard Saint-Germain, a web of narrow lanes still branched off, such as rue Maître-Albert, rue Saint-Séverin, rue Galande, rue de la Bûcherie, rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, as far as rue de la Huchette, littered with filthy hotels generally run by Auvergnat hoteliers of legendary cupidity, who demanded one franc for the first night and forty centimes thereafter (plus twenty sous if you wanted a sheet).
If he were to turn into what was later to become rue Sauton but was then still rue d’Amboise, about halfway along the street, between a brothel masquerading as a brasserie and a tavern that served dinner with foul wine for two sous (cheap even then, but all that was affordable to students from the nearby Sorbonne), he would have found an impasse, or blind alley, which by that time was called impasse Maubert, but up to 1865 had been called cul-de-sac d’Amboise, and years earlier had housed a tapis-franc (in underworld slang, a tavern, a hostelry of ill fame, usually run by an ex-convict, and the haunt of felons just released from jail), and was also notorious because in the eighteenth century there had stood here the laboratory of three celebrated women poisoners, found one day asphyxiated by the deadly substances they were distilling on their stoves.
At the end of that alleyway, quite inconspicuous, was the window of a junk shop that a faded sign extolled as Brocantage de Qualité — a window whose glass was covered by such a thick layer of dust that it was hard to see the goods on display or the interior, each pane being little more than twenty centimeters square, all held together by a wooden frame. Beside the window he would have seen a door, always shut, and a notice beside the bell pull announcing that the proprietor was temporarily absent.
But if, as rarely happened, the door was open, anyone entering would have been able to make out, in the half-light illuminating that dingy hovel, arranged on a few precarious shelves and several equally unsteady tables, a jumble of objects that, though attractive at first sight, would on closer inspection have turned out to be totally unsuitable for any honest commercial trade, even if they were to be offered at knock-down prices. They included a pair of fire dogs that would have disgraced any hearth, a pendulum clock in flaking blue enamel, cushions once perhaps embroidered in bright colors, vase stands with chipped ceramic putti, small wobbly tables of indeterminate style, a rusty iron visiting-card holder, indefinable pokerwork boxes, hideous mother-of-pearl fans decorated with Chinese designs, a necklace that might have been amber, two white felt slippers with buckles encrusted with Irish diamantes, a chipped bust of Napoleon, butterflies under crazed glass, multicolored marble fruit under a once transparent bell, coconut shells, old albums with mediocre watercolors of flowers, a framed daguerreotype (which even then hardly seemed old) — so if someone, taking a perverse fancy to one of those shameful remnants of past distraints on the possessions of destitute families, and finding himself in front of the highly suspicious proprietor, had asked the price, he would have heard a figure that would have deterred even the most eccentric collector of antiquarian teratology.
And if the visitor, by virtue of some special permission, had continued on through a second door, separating the inside of the shop from the upper floors of the building, and had climbed one of those rickety spiral staircases typical of those Parisian houses whose frontages are as wide as their entrance doors (cramped together sidelong, one against the next), he would have entered a spacious room that, unlike the ground-floor collection of bric-a-brac, appeared to be furnished with objects of quite a different quality: a small three-legged Empire table decorated with eagle heads, a console table supported by a winged sphinx, a seventeenth-century wardrobe, a mahogany bookcase displaying a hundred or so books well bound in morocco, an American-style desk with a roll top and plenty of small drawers like a secrétaire. And if he had passed into the adjoining room, he would have found a luxurious four-poster bed, a rustic étagère laden with Sèvres porcelain, a Turkish hookah, a large alabaster cup and a crystal vase; on the far wall, panels painted with mythological scenes, two large canvases representing the Muses of History and Comedy and, hung variously upon the walls, Arab barracans, other oriental cashmere robes and an ancient pilgrim’s flask; and a washstand with a shelf filled with toiletry articles of the finest quality — in short, a bizarre collection of costly and curious objects that perhaps indicated not so much a consistency and refinement of taste as a desire for ostentatious opulence.
Returning to the first room, the visitor would have made out an elderly figure wrapped in a dressing gown, sitting at a table in front of the only window, through which filtered what little light illuminated the alleyway, who, from what he would have been able to glimpse over that man’s shoulders, was writing what we are about to read, and which the Narrator will summarize from time to time, so as not to unduly bore the Reader.
Nor should the Reader expect the Narrator to reveal, to his surprise, that this figure is someone already named, since (this being the very beginning of the story) no one has yet been named. And the Narrator himself does not yet know who the mysterious writer is, proposing to find this out (together with the Reader) while both of us look on inquisitively and follow what he is noting down on those sheets of paper
What People are saying about this
From the Publisher
"I find this book fascinating, perhaps the best Eco has written in years." —Huffington Post "A well-executed thriller . . . provocative and suspenseful." —USA Today
"[Eco's] latest takes that longtime thriller darling, the conspiracy theory, and turns it into something grander...Sold to 40 countries and said to be controversial; a speed-read with smarts." —Library Journal, "My Picks"
"A whirlwind tour of conspiracy and political intrigue...this dark tale is delightfully embellished with sophisticated and playful commentary on, among other things, Freud, metafiction, and the challenges of historiography." —Booklist
"Intriguing, hilarious....a tale by a master." —Publishers Weekly boxed review
"He's got a humdinger in this new high-level whodunit...a perplexing, multilayered, attention-holding mystery." —Kirkus, starred