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Monday, December 12, 2011

‘Prague Cemetery’ is a dark place

Historical thriller revolves around 19th century intrigue in Europe .

Umberto Eco's latest work is rife with fabrications, conspiracy theories, fakery, espionage and political drama. Already a best seller in Spain, Italy and other countries, The Prague Cemetery is a well-executed thriller set in late-19th-century Europe. This is Eco's first novel in seven years. It's provocative and suspenseful, and it's already drumming up controversy.

The enigmatic protagonist, 67-year-old Simone Simonini, is a detestable anti-Semite, misogynist and all-around misanthrope. His maxim: "I hate therefore I am." He earns his living in Paris as a master forger of documents (not to mention as a murderous spy). "It's a marvelous thing creating a legal deed out of nothing," he boasts, "forging a letter that looks genuine, crafting a compromising confession, creating a document that will lead someone to ruin."

Although he becomes enmeshed in the political intrigue of the day — including the Dreyfus Affair and the Paris Commune — it's no surprise that Simonini is such a solitary figure. "Whom do I love?" he asks. "No one comes to mind." His vitriol veers from alarming to comical: "The German lives in a state of perpetual intestinal embarrassment due to an excess of beer and the pork sausages on which he gorges himself." At least Simonini, who expresses love for nothing but devouring gourmet cuisine, is compelling in his repugnance.

Interestingly, Eco notes in an afterword that Simonini is the only fictional character in the novel. All the others — such as Sigmund Freud and Alexander Dumas — actually existed, or are carefully drawn amalgams of historical figures.

At the opening of the novel, in 1897, Simonini feels disoriented and agitated: his memory seems to be slipping, and he starts to feel his identity blurring with the Abbé Dalla Piccola, a cleric who may or may not be entering his home and writing entries in his diary.

The core of the novel is the infamous historical document known as "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," purported to be a Jewish plot to take over the world — and revealed to be a forgery (in this story, one perpetrated by the evil Simonini himself). This text fueled the actions of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists of the era, and would later influence Hitler.

Don't be mistaken: The Prague Cemetery is no Dan Brown thriller. It's a dense, multilayered mystery, steeped in arcane historical fact. Coming from the erudite author of The Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum, that's to be expected. Eco's latest is a complex exploration (and indictment of) xenophobia and religious fanaticism, revealing how certain events and widespread beliefs led to horrifying acts of persecution and war.

Occasionally, this dark narrative gets bogged down in esoteric asides on theology and more. Yet despite its challenges and its rather contemptible protagonist, The Prague Cemetery is edifying and thoroughly worthwhile. That it is historically accurate makes it all the more chilling.

Carmela Ciuraru is the author of Nom de Plume: A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms.

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