I managed—aided by a combination of piteous entreaties, furious threats, and the occasional application of the lash—to drag my refractory attention span across the finish line of Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery, but by that point I had already decided that it is a text whose only interest is, in the vaguest sense, sociological. As a literary performance, it is (let’s be up front about this) almost calamitously bad: ineptly narrated, ponderously plotted, and tedious throughout. As a cultural and critical event, however, it is at least faintly fascinating as an example of a phenomenon I can only call “the inertia of reputation.”
To put the matter very simply, I find it impossible to believe that any sane reader could enjoy this book as a novel. I admit that the book is an international best seller and that it has received generally laudatory reviews, even from some writers I would not have thought prone to such bad taste. A few critics have ventured dissenting opinions: Some have fretted that anti-Semites and other bigots might take encouragement from the vile rhetoric of the book’s central character (presuming that lot would have the intellectual stamina to read the novel at all), and others have raised objections to the shocking incompetence of the writing. But the general tendency to this point has been to praise the book and its author, with only a few reservations, for conjuring up something marvelous and elaborate and darkly absorbing.
As far as I am concerned, though, all of that can be dismissed as a form of communal hysteria, induced by the intimidating oddity of Eco’s celebrity. He is a famous novelist who is also a famous scholar, in command of a formidable arsenal of abstruse knowledge. His field is semiotics, a discipline so obscure that journalists cannot quite define it; he is assumed, not without warrant, to possess an uncommonly subtle mind.
As a result, I suspect, many readers and critics have become convinced that his fictions constitute a sort of intelligence test, and one they would not like to be thought to have failed. Hence, he can publish just about any novel now, so long as it is fairly long and seemingly recondite, and expect a decent report in the papers and robust sales at the shops; it scarcely matters that very few of those who begin to read the book will ever finish it.
It was not always thus. When Eco first arrived on the literary stage, stepping out of the chilly shadows of a purely academic career, he was actually obliged to divert and beguile. The Name of the Rose (1980) was, if not a masterpiece, a very good story, and one that distributed its pleasures with equal liberality to learned and casual readers alike. It flattered those who could understand the long passages in Latin, or who noticed the glittery filaments of intertextuality woven into its design, or who understood the late-medieval tension between realist and nominalist metaphysics; but it also entertained those who were simply interested in a colorful murder mystery with an unusual setting and who did not mind skipping the Latin bits altogether.
The plotline was clever, each character vivid (if a little unidimensional), the central protagonist genuinely engaging, the solution to the mystery amusing, the conclusion to the action satisfyingly dramatic, and the overall atmosphere pleasantly bizarre. It was not as accurate a picture of the High Middle Ages as it was purported to be in the literary press, but it did succeed at conveying something of the sheer otherness of the medieval world. It merited most of its acclaim.
Since then, however, Eco has never again been able to strike a tolerable balance between invention and inventory. Starting with Foucault’s Pendulum (1988), each of his subsequent novels has been concocted from a tattered shred of an interesting idea, a hasty charcoal sketch of a plot, and a warehouse full of dazzlingly obscure facts and boringly obvious intertextual allusions. Each book is intensely diverting in parts but dully vacuous in its totality. Taken altogether, there is something almost monstrous about them—about the sheer disproportion between pretension and achievement. It is time, I think, to conclude that Eco is a writer who had one novel in him, which he wrote more than thirty years ago, and who would have been wise to stop there.
He should, at any rate, have stopped before producing The Prague Cemetery. Of all of his books, this is the one that provides the tiniest quantum of entertainment in compensation for the dogged patience it demands of its reader. The story concerns the genesis of the most blood-steeped forgery of human history, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and—with the exceptions only of the central character and a few minor incidental figures—every part in the tale is played by someone who really lived.
The fictional protagonist, Simone Simonini, is a vicious anti-Semite and misogynist, a devout glutton, a thief and murderer, devoid of any principles apart from his hatreds and his greed; his one great talent is as a forger. The novel tells the story of his life: his childhood in Turin, his wicked intrigues in Sicily in the day of Garibaldi and the Expedition of a Thousand, his exile to Paris, his observations of the Commune, his employment as a spy for the Piedmontese, French, and Russian secret services, his hand in framing Dreyfus, his involvement in Leo Taxil’s hoaxes regarding Satanism, “Palladism,” and the “Masonic Conspiracy,” his dealings with anti-Semitic ideologues like Edouard Drumont, his attendance at a Black Mass, and so on.
The tale is framed by a mystery incidentally. As the book begins, Simonini is writing his memoir, after a chance encounter with the young Sigmund Freud, in an attempt to recover from a case of partial amnesia and, as it turns out, split personality. The narrative is in fact written in three narrative voices: Simonini’s own, that of his alter ego Abbé Dalla Piccola, and that of a nameless “Narrator.” It also emerges that there are four corpses in the sewers below Simonini’s house, only two of which he can recall putting there. Unfortunately, this is at best a perfunctory device for trying to create suspense where none is possible.
It might have worked had Eco actually expended any energy on producing two or more distinct first-person characters, but he scarcely bothers. When the solution to the mystery comes, carelessly tacked on at the end, it is neither surprising nor interesting. It is all too obvious that the author’s only real interest lay in gathering together a vast assortment of grotesque historical curios and oddments and then exhibiting them in a single display case—whether for our amusement and edification or as a tribute to his own cleverness I cannot say.
Somewhere in the book, I admit, a clever conceit lies buried: that behind so many of the deranged conspiracy theories that arose during a particularly volatile period in modern European history, and that in countless ways contributed to the horrors of the first half of the twentieth century, lurks a single malevolent figure—cruel, cynical, a little psychotic, a liar who delights in the destruction his lies cause. Every conspiracy theory is thus inverted, reduced to an accidental invention of the deeper “conspiracy” of a single foul and malicious man’s soul. The figure of Simonini unites the farraginous mass delusions of the latter half of the nineteenth century into a single tale; and what draws his otherwise pointless and vagrant existence into a unity is the slow gestation, over the course of his life, of the Protocols.
As a matter of fact, the textual genealogy of the Protocols is fairly well known: Abbé Augustin Barruel’s secret history of the Jacobins (in which the conspirators are Masons), Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères du peuple (in which the conspirators are Jesuits), Maurice Joly’s Dialogue aux enfers entre Machiavel et Montesquieu (an attack on Napoleon III), Hermann Goedsche’s Biarritz (in which the conspirators are, at last, Jews), and so on. Eco adds Simonini to the tale as a kind of metaphor, I suppose, for the accidental but diabolical cunning of human hatred. He functions as the focal point at which the various currents of the story are concentrated into the lurid fiction of an international Jewish cabal bent on corrupting Christendom and ruling the world. (Ultimately, in contemplating what he has come to see as the culmination of his life’s work, Simonini even fantasizes that his efforts will lead in time to a “final solution” to the problem of the Jewish people.)
A clever conceit, however, does not a story make. Some critics will undoubtedly describe the book as intricate and ingenious; it is, in truth, merely cluttered and laborious. It might all have made for quite a grim little horror story, even a powerful morality fable—if only there were an actual novel somewhere in this novel.
David Bentley Hart is an editor at large for First Things. His most recent book is The Devil and Pierre Gernet.