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Review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

THE only thing harder than writing the perfect first novel is producing follow-ups which are equally satisfying, attracting new readers while not disappointing existing fans.

And Umberto Eco knows that problem better than most.

His first book, published when he was a 49-year-old professor of semiotics, was The Name of the Rose, a self-consciously postmodern take on the mediaeval world, in the form of a murder mystery.

First published in English in 1983, it went on to sell millions. Since then, Eco has produced a mini series of novels combining his knowledge and affection for the tropes of what might be considered sensationalist literature with a scholar's fascination for historical esoterica. The result is considerably more fun than that description suggests. Some was better than others, though none, it's fair to say, were as good as his debut.

His latest is no exception. The Prague Cemetery is certainly not trying to woo any new friends. It's a dense and often frustrating read. Some sentences are practically unreadable, laden down as they are with facts and exposition rather than the more usual diversions of plot or character.

But Eco illuminates an age like no other writer -- the era in this case being fin de siecle Paris, its filthy streets bristling with communists, conspirators and con men, Jesuits and Freemasons, and, most of all, Jews.

The novel was heavily criticised in its native Italy for having an anti-semitic narrator whose repulsion for Jews permeates every page, but that misses the point. (Or perhaps makes it.) No one can escape their time and place. Men are what they are at any given moment. Eco is hardly approving of his narrator's loathing for Jews, merely using this revolting man as a device to explore what happens when fanaticism and hatred take hold. Nineteenth-Century Paris, in that respect, isn't so different from our own era; we may have different phobias and obsessions, but they're no less passionate.

The narrator is Captain Simonini, a forger and double agent who undertakes to relate his story in order to fill in the puzzling gaps which have started appearing in his memory.

It's a common theme of Eco's work; the protagonist of his previous novel, 2006's The Mysterious Flame Of Queen Leona, has come out of a coma in a similar state of confusion. And as in Foucalt's Pendulum (1988) what emerges in the course of this new novel is an overarching conspiracy, the difference here being that the conspiracy exists nowhere except in the minds of the narrator and others like him, men whose mistrust of Jews is so great that Eco ends up crediting Simonini with authorship of the notorious forgery The Protocols Of The Elders Of Zion, which purportedly lays out a Jewish plot to take over the world. The document infamously inspired Hitler.

This ultimate postmodern joke, of a forger who believes his own mental fantasies to such an extent that he ends up creating them, is a typical Eco conceit. A master of the epigram, he sums it up in a single sentence: "People only believe what they already know, and this is the beauty of the Universal Form of Conspiracy."

The author sets about demonstrating his point with gusto, putting about his fictitious narrator a gallery of entirely real historical figures, including Freud, who, despite being Jewish, has the bad grace to be charming company. The plot is implausible, but that's the point, too. It's as unbelievable as Captain Simonini's beliefs. Each bit of craziness echoes the other.

It also adds to the comedy of the piece, because Eco has always been a humourist as much as anything else, albeit that the humour needs to be mined sometimes from the seams of his heavily worn learning.

The Prague Cemetery is like another version of Woody Allen's Zelig, as the captain finds himself at the centre of practically every historical event in Italy and France from the mid-19th Century onwards.

The narrative form echoes the conspiracy theorist's tendency to see a hidden hand in every disparate event, and Eco does not even try to hide the artifice. In fact, for those who still don't get it, Eco includes a table at the end to help resolve the "fatal imbalance" between plot and story, for the benefit, as he puts it, "of the overly meticulous reader, or one who is not so quick on the uptake" -- both being facets of the same thing.

That sort of authorial trickiness infuriates some readers and delights others, but it's certainly never dull.

Sunday Indo Living