News about Umberto Eco

05.11.2011 - Finding the Origin of the Vile

When Umberto Eco's latest novel was published in Italy last year, it received a scathing review from the Vatican-endorsed newspaper Osservatore Romano. The review of "The Prague Cemetery" (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 444 pages, $27) contended that the book's readers would be "tainted," and even persuaded, by the anti-Semitic vitriol espoused by the novel's characters. Mr. Eco's publicists should not have been dismayed by a Vatican pan: Other authors who have run afoul of the church include Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling. Offending the Vatican is no impediment to book sales. "The Prague Cemetery" in its Italian and Spanish editions went on to sell millions.

Now that the novel appears in Richard Dixon's rococo English translation, it is hard to understand why Osservatore Romano was bothered. "The Prague Cemetery" is an entertaining and melodramatic farrago of 19th-century European hate-mongering that features a sinister cast of anti-Semites, assassins and Satanists. Mr. Eco's sweaty-palmed conceit is that all of the conspiracies invented to spread and justify the period's race hatred can be traced back to one evil (and of course fictitious) mastermind, the creator of the notorious hoax text "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion."

That man is the hissably malevolent Simone Simonini, a forger of legal documents who begins his narrative with bilious diatribes against Jesuits, Freemasons, women, the French, Italians, Germans and most of all Jews, whom he blames for the world's ills despite having scarcely met any. The novel is partially Simonini's record of his life and deeds, but his confessions are interrupted by someone who seems to be his alter ego, the Jesuit Abbé Dalla Piccola; and both sets of their chronicles are amended at times by a nameless omniscient third-person voice.

In the story these voices combine to tell, Simonini appears as a demonic Zelig figure. He works as a double-agent during the Italian unification movement called Risorgimento in the mid-19th century, and he undermines the 1870 Paris Commune. In the 1890s, he counterfeits the evidence in the infamous French spy scandal that saw the artillery captain Alfred Dreyfus railroaded because he was a Jew. Meanwhile Simonini composes his life's work, "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," abiding by his tenets for effective scapegoat propaganda: "If a document is to be convincing it must be created ex novo"—made new from scratch. "And where possible, the original must not be seen but only talked about, without reference to any precise source."

Simonini's principal innovation is in marketing his fabrication for a wide audience by modeling it on what were known as "feuilletons"—popular serialized novels by writers like Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Sue. "The Prague Cemetery" itself takes the style of these overstuffed adventure stories—it even contains old-fashioned engravings—and there's a sense that Mr. Eco is turning the tables on his shadowy anti-Semites by spinning a yarn about the creation of conspiracies that captures the imagination better than the conspiracies themselves.

Mr. Eco has said that in Simonini he has tried to create the most hateful character in all of fiction. (He even makes a point of instilling him with each of the seven deadly sins.) This is why the church's concern that Simonini's anti-Semitism will rub off on readers seems misplaced—it's like worrying that the glamorous villains in Ian Fleming's 007 novels will inspire someone to attempt world domination. The novel's chief enjoyment lies in the guilty pleasure of despising Mr. Eco's super-villain—for a little while, at least, we have a scapegoat to blame for one of history's most pernicious nightmares.

The form of Peter Orner's "Love and Shame and Love" (Little, Brown, 439 pages, $24.99) is so unorthodox that it takes about 100 pages to acclimate to the novel and appreciate its effects. The autobiographical story that Mr. Orner tells, by contrast, offers nothing fresh. He recounts the lives of three generations in a Jewish, Chicago-based clan, the Poppers. There's Seymour, the upwardly mobile World War II veteran; his son Philip, an attorney and minor cog in Mayor Richard J. Daley's Democratic machine in the 1960s; and his grandson Alexander, an aspiring writer and our neurotic, Woody Allen-like narrator. Alexander has inherited an aptitude for failed relationships, and the novel takes the shape of scattered recollections—his "random, private meanderings"—as he tries to make peace with the bitter outcome of his life.

It's in the presentation of these remembrances that the novel is both challenging and worthwhile. Instead of a sustained narrative, hundreds of snapshots from Alexander's past are pieced together—though "snapshots" suggests something static, and each of these eye-blink vignettes is animated by yearning and often by cries of desire or despair. ("Why is it that shame never stops bleeding?" Alexander wails.) The brief chapters are at first difficult to follow, but they soon coalesce into an emotionally inflected mosaic of Alexander's past. "Isn't history as much about tearing things down as it is about building things up?" Alexander asks. Mr. Orner has found a way of making loss and reclamation exist side by side. 

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