In the Prague Cemetery, Eco creates a rambling book of tangents and bluffs, with the slimy Italian Captain Simonini, who makes a living throughout the nineteenth century hoaxing and forging his way through political movements and intelligence agencies in the nineteenth century – eventually culminating in the anti-semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion. We learn all this from his diaries – confused and unreliable as they may be.
In research for the book Eco seems to have delved into all sorts of unsavoury sections of nineteenth century literature. Some are obvious, some are more obscure, some are surprisingly mainstream (Alexandre Dumas, Disraeli). He constantly seems to be saying “This actually happened. Someone did this. Someone wrote this. People believed it.” and sometimes he lets his amazement overwhelm the story. In this sense, he is at his best when he shows the borrowing, the twisting of old tropes for new audiences, the closed loops when a story is used to confirm itself.
He has covered conspiracies plenty of times before, but this does feel slightly different. The stories feel grubbier. The spectre of the Nazis, an eventually peak of anti-semitism, hangs over the book. For me, it also called up Conrad’s Secret Agent with its murky world of spies, informers and anarchist bombs. Fear of the Masons, Jesuits and satanists is there too. All the lunatic fringes are present. Although Eco does pull a surprise by largely steering away from The Dreyfus Affair.
At times the book can be funny, at times it can be interesting; but at other points it is difficult – it’s not just that it gets quite dry; but that it is an unpleasant read. Some of these movements, some of these writings, feel lost in history and it’s easy to wish they would stay there. Perhaps there’s a more general point than that, Eco’s russian agent Rachovsky (a real historical figure, most of them are in this book) sets out his case that his government don’t care for the truth of not of Simonini’s anti semitic rambling, they want to provide an enemy, a distraction. People need someone to hate, and it is in the interests of the powerful to find groups to demonize. Despite this gloom, I enjoyed it – it feels like one of Eco’s most purposeful books.