cover image The Prague Cemetery

The Prague Cemetery

Umberto Eco, trans. from the Italian by Richard Dixon. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $27 (464p) ISBN 978-0-547-57753-1

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)