News about Umberto Eco

07.11.2011 - Across the literary pages: tell me lies


Monday, 7th November 2011

Across the literary pages: tell me lies

Tomorrow is E-Day: the publication of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Prague Cemetery. The book concerns the fictitious Protocols of the Elders of Zion and how they were still accepted even after being exposed as a fabrication in 1921. This is natural territory for Eco the semiotician. He told the Times (£):

'I always had an interest for the problem of lying, fakes and forgeries from the semiotic point of view. It’s a fundamental human activity to lie more than to tell the truth. The problem of the Protocols fascinated me. Just because of its capability to resist any form of proof and criticism, it means that it’s a text that is able to touch the deepest prejudice in the human soul.'

It’s an intriguing premise for a historical mystery. The book has sold more than a million copies on the continent and has been touted as a ‘return to form’ for Eco after a couple of recent flops. However, British reviewers are split on The Prague Cemetery. The Sunday Times’ Adam Lively insists (£) that Eco is on ‘magnificent form in this intoxicating novel’. But the Guardian’s Theo Tait dissents:

‘The Prague Cemetery is a tiring plod. Eco is much indebted to Jorge Luis Borges, and this is the sort of exercise – a fictional version of a true story of a fake which had a powerful effect on the real world – that the Argentine writer would have turned into a dizzying, flawlessly executed five-page short story. But over Eco's flaccid 400-plus pages, it is frustrating and unsatisfactory. All the vices of the historical novel are there: the wodges of researched material; the easy, silly ironies (that Austrian Jew turns out to be a certain "Dr Froide"). The characters are little more than vessels for the author's erudition. What John Updike called Eco's "orgy of citation and paraphrase" often becomes unbearable. His desire to cover pages with occult lore is unabated ("Secretary of the Savonarola Lodge in Florence, Venerable of the Giordano Bruno Lodge of Palmi, Sovereign Grand Inspector-General, thirty-third degree of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish rite …", and so on and on). For all the homage paid to Dumas, the plot is stodgy and repetitive. It is hard, at times, to remember which blandly threatening puppetmaster or sinister Jesuit we are dealing with.’

If that hasn’t put you off, The Prague Cemetery will hit bookshops tomorrow.

You can’t have missed P.D. James’ Death comes to Pemberley, discussed by Fleur Macdonald yesterday. Baroness James has also been a ubiquitous presence in newspapers in recent weeks, giving interviews, quotations and so forth. Most of these appearances have been used to justify her decision to write a sequel to Pride and Prejudice and she was at it again this weekend, penning an article for theTelegraph. In it, she observes:

'There is one sentence in Pride and Prejudice that always shocks me by its unexpectedness. The younger Bennet girls, returning from a visit to the officers stationed at Meryton, report among the trivial news they bring that a private has been flogged, an intrusion of harsh reality into a glittering romantic and happy novel, which is the only mention by Austen of the barbarity of the military discipline of her age.'   

Her aim, it seems, is to dirty Austen’s white-frocked world, albeit while having the utmost respect for the original. The settings for James’ detective fiction are darkened by a malevolence that relies on her description of time and place. For instance, in Devices and Desires, the Norfolk coastline and the nuclear power station that sullies it are at once peaceful and menacing — an atmosphere that disorientates the reader. James promises that her rendering of Pemberley is no different.

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