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THE PRAGUE CEMETERY by Umberto Eco: Book Review [The Ryan Dixon Line]

Able to leap multidisciplinary subjects in a single bound, Umberto Eco is the college professor you always wanted to have.  His first novel, 1980’s international bestseller The Name of the Rose placed such seemingly inaccessible topics as semiotics and biblical hermeneutics inside the irresistible candy wrapper of a medieval monastery murder mystery.  Eco’s second novel, Foucault’s Pendulum, also came with a tasty hook, despite causing mild reader indigestion by the end: A group of professors use a computer to unlock the ultimate conspiracy theory.

Unfortunately, Eco’s next three fictional efforts, The Island of the Day Before, Baudolino and The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, were bloated, meandering tales of ephemera and arcana, written by a brilliant professor without a syllabus.

Already a literary sensation throughout much of the rest of the world, his newest novel The Prague Cemetery, seems blessed with a premise tailor-made for a return to form: The memoirs of master document forger Captain Simone Simonini, the fictional “evil genius” behind many the 19th Century’s most infamous events.

Unlike Foucault’s Pendulum, where the professorial protagonists were on hand to explain the bevy of conspiracy theories and secret societies, the historical exposition of The Prague Cemetery is about as inviting as the Korean DMZ. (A word of caution:  if you’re not up to speed on such topics as the Unification of Italy, the Paris Commune or the Dreyfus affair, don’t stray too far from a device with internet capacity.)

The morass of names, dates and battles wouldn’t have been so exhausting an endurance test if Eco had allowed the reader to enjoy his evil genius’s machinations. After all, the book jacket promises of a plot filled with “forgeries, plots, and massacres.” There’s a good reason, however, why one can’t playfully bathe in Simonini’s venom: It’s hard to root for a villain whose main motivation is unchecked anti-Semitism.

Even though our narrator’s greatest triumph is forging The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the Rosetta Stone of modern anti-Semitism, the proceedings seem disarmingly light considering the apocalyptic 20th Century epilogue. And there’s the rub: since The Prague Cemetery seems designed as a beach read for Mensa members, Eco can’t really have his protagonist descend into the abyss of the truly monstrous. Simonini is neither a debased ancestor to Dr. Maximilien Aue, the incestuous Nazi narrator of Jonathan Littell’s mammoth The Kindly Ones, nor a frock-coated Keyser Söze. He is just an anti-Semitic Forrest Gump, impotently floating within the muddy, slow moving waters of Eco’s historical narrative.

Despite the compelling possibilities presented by Eco’s claim that every character aside from Simonini actually existed, the “real-life” personages rarely induce the Bill & Ted-like twinge of pleasure found in Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump or even The Kindly Ones (“Dude, isn’t that Joseph Goebbels?!?!”). In fact, Simonini’s second career as a closeted gourmand is endowed with far more depth and detail than most of the characters. Not since Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking has so much page space been dedicated to Gallic gustatory. By the end of the novel, the reader will know how to cook Fricassée de poulet mareng, but still be in the dark as to what exactly inspired Maurice Joly to write The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu.

In its final third, The Prague Cemetery at last attains some semblance of narrative momentum. Not surprisingly the book switches gears from chalkboard dry political history to a red meat menu of Satanism, Palladism and occultism, bringing to the fore the personage of anti-Catholic French writer and Freemason Leo Taxil, the first character to make more than just a passing impression.

Fans of the New Atheist antics of Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris, will delight in Eco’s chronicle of how Simonini helps convince Taxil, for a tidy sum of money, to convert to Catholicism and reveal the “secrets” of Freemasonry to an all-too-willing public. As Taxil’s tales of human sacrifice and orgies grow ever gorier and more ridiculous, The Prague Cemetery comes alive not only as an engaging read, but as a biting contemporary satire for our internet age, reminding us that it’s easier than ever to defraud a gullible public made up of yearning, willing believers with a unquenchable thirst for exploitation.

If Eco had been able to deliver the goods at this level throughout the entire novel, The Prague Cemetery would have been worthy follow up to The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. Instead, he has made a different sort of literary history. Umberto Eco has written the first official novelization of a Wikipedia article.

Follow Ryan Dixon on Twitter @ryanbdixon. Order a copy of his graphic novel Hell House: The Awakening here.

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