Bookish digressions and odd cultural details are two reasons why we read Umberto Eco. He takes great pleasure in showing readers the monastic care of books in “The Name of the Rose,” the kabbalah in “Foucault’s Pendulum” and day-to-day life in Mussolini’s Italy in “The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana.” Without such layers, without his plunging into the minutiae of other eras, it just wouldn’t be an Eco novel.
Such details and digressions are also crucial to his latest, “The Prague Cemetery,” maybe even more than in any of his other novels.
Why? Without all the learned trivia, Rabelaisian caricatures, comic asides and bizarre comments, the book’s subject — the creator of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the forged document purporting to reveal a worldwide Jewish conspiracy — would be especially difficult to read. This book is less a pleasing romp in the past than a forced march alongside some wretched characters.
We’re introduced to the spy Simone Simonini through the pages of his diary: Among forgers, Simonini is quite a virtuoso. “I have decided, with some reluctance, to keep this diary,” he explains, “writing down my past … until … the traumatizing element reemerges.”
What trauma is this? That’s part of the mystery. Whatever it is, it has — strike that, it may have — split his personality so that he wanders about Paris as Simonini and, at other times, dressed in a cassock as Abbe Dalla Piccola.
When this supposed shift in personalities occurs — signaled, usually, by an epileptic fit that makes him black out — he awakes with no memory of being the other person.
Simonini and Dalla Piccola trade narrative duties, showing readers the origins of his (their?) anti-Semitism, the political tumult of mid-19th century Europe and the climate of paranoia over secret groups that produced “The Protocols,” which first appeared in Russia in the early 1900s and alleged that Jewish world leaders met in Prague to formulate their sinister plans.
To further complicate the story, there is a third voice, the Narrator, who mediates between the accounts written by Simonini and the priest. If this sounds confusing, don’t worry: This narrator’s presence is useful in sorting out details. And in a novel by a preeminent thinker on all things meta-critical, you wouldn’t expect anything less.
Simonini is an intriguing fanatic. Why attack the Jews when his forgery skills might net him fabulous wealth and influence? In one sense, Simonini cannot escape his fate: From his father he inherited a penchant for conspiracy theories; his anti-Semitism came from his grandfather and the family’s treacherous notary. He blames everyone else for his sins: The “Protocols” that he stitches together, he says, simply echo views already accepted by the public.
“If I wanted to sell the story of a conspiracy,” he says, “I didn’t have to offer the buyer anything original, but simply something he already knew.… People believe only what they already know, and this is the beauty of the Universal Form of Conspiracy.”
So proud and boastful — a pity he doesn’t know his own mind as well as he thinks he knows the public’s. If he did, he might be redeemed from that “traumatizing element” that resurfaces later in the novel.
Eco’s mastery of the milieu is evident on every page of “The Prague Cemetery.” Still, rereading “The Name of the Rose” is preferable to reading this one. Eco is applying an understandable strategy here — neutralize loathsome characters by inhabiting their points of view and exposing their follies — but it’s difficult keeping company with these narrators for so long. With “Rose,” by comparison, you wish your time with William of Baskerville would never end.