The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

the-prague-cemetery-u-ecoIn 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.

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The Dreyfus Affair / The Land of Desire podcast

A while back I downloaded some episodes of a podcast that I had seen a few good reviews of: The Land of Desire.  It basically acts as a miscellany for different aspects of France and French culture.  After flicking through a few episodes, I landed on the six episode mini series on the Dreyfus Affair (from late 2016, I’m not exactly up to date here).

71avifompzlUntil recently my knowledge of the Dreyfus Affair began and ended with a vague memory of seeing a print of Emile Zola’s J’Accuse newspaper headline in a history classroom.  Then I read Robert HarrisAn Officer And A Spy – and found it gripping.  Told from the point of view of Colonel Picquart, a counter intelligence officer who uncovered the conspiracy, it is easy to be shocked by the forged evidence and military cover up.  It really is a good book.  But after the opening act of the (real life) scandal Picquart spends much of his time in exile or prison, so it is hard to see the real comings and goings.  In addition, unlike Dreyfus, Picquart was not Jewish so it hard to really get into the rise of anti-semitism.

image001That’s where this podcast comes in – The Land of Desire is able to explore the full story of the scandal, in which a Jewish army officer was clumsily framed for selling military secrets to the Germans, even as the story unravelled and the real culprit became obvious.  The need for a scapegoat coincided with the rise of anti-semitic feeling in France, and with a cultural divide between conservatives and progressives.  The podcast is at its best when covering this battle, even if it has to remain brief to avoid spamming the listener with names and sidetracks.

The problem with the podcast is that Diana, the Californian writer/presenter/producer, is so polished that her delivery comes across as blandly earnest and upbeat, no matter the material.  Part of this is the writing: she clearly can handle the big issues and complexities – as she does when describing the cultural divide in France or the continuing antisemitism – but at some points she oversimplifies (in an attempt to be accessible, I think).

I think the other part comes from a desire for professionalism, she is clearly very passionate about the material in this podcast (and rightly so) but that rarely shines through as she keeps her delivery level.  When it does come through: the anger, the frustration, the sheer exasperation at the farcical conspiracy is actually very engaging – it’s a sense of personality that I’d like to see elsewhere.  On the plus side, this upbeat delivery is great at dealing with the more comical parts of the story – the bizarre Major du Paty de Clam, the ridiculous handwriting expert Bertillon, the blocking of military judges.

I’m still in the early stages of the podcast, and there is a tendency for shows to improve over time, so I’m happy to continue listening and hope things even out.  Back on topic, the mini-series does end on a sad note.  Although Dreyfus and his supporters were ultimately pardoned, it would only be a few short decades before the Jews of France were decimated in World War Two – often with the support of parts of the local population.  And anti-semitism remains a problem to this day – many of the arguments throughout the show felt oddly familiar, even down to the less direct things like the Socialists arguing that having to deal with a case like Dreyfus would be a distraction from the main battle against capitalism.

Paul: The Mind of the Apostle by AN Wilson

The apostle Paul has a bit of an image problem – he’s often seen as the man who took Jesus ideas and distorted them creating the rigid, repressive elements of Christianity that we still know and love today.  In this book, from 1997, he sets out to place Paul in the context of his time and culture and to re-evaluate his work.

For Wilson, Paul has to be seen within the Jewish culture of his time, rather than as an early Christian.  He sees Paul’s work as that of a liberal reformer (opening the church to gentiles, removing restrictions) who expected Jesus to return soon (rather than setting up a structure for a long lasting church).  His views on women and homosexuality are portrayed as usual for his time and his culture.  It was in the time after Paul that the gospels were actually compiled and for Wilson, these writings have as much Paul in them as Jesus – without a source unaffected by him, it becomes hard to charge Paul with a distortion of the message.

At one point Wilson describes Paul as the “first Romantic poet”.  He clearly likes Paul as a character and seems to often think the best of him, there is plenty of speculation (he speculates that Paul as a temple guard could have been present at the crucifixion).  Despite that, Wilson is critical at other points – looking for independent sources.  Through both speculation and scepticism, the author is open about his methods, which perhaps helps the book veer away from being too uneven.