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Brilliant, but not thrilling
am 14. März 2012
This complex novel is about conspiracies, populism and plagiarism in 19th century Europe. Its first chapter was an assault on this reader's feelings, a sour fruit to eat and stomach. Its main character is racist and psychotic Simone Simonino (SS) from Turin, later from Paris, a dubious notary, an expert forger of documents, occasional killer and devious spy. SS's diary from 1897, going back to the 1860's and before, forms the backbone of this novel.
Umberto Eco (UE) provides a raw portrait of Paris and France in the late 19th century. And gives insights into popular sentiments, whereby few nationalities or entities escaped popular distrust and hatred. Popular hate targets included Communists, Freemasons, Jesuits, and especially Jews. Eco's thesis in this novel is that all 19th century accusations and campaigns against these groups were concocted and managed somehow by one man, the plagiarizing SS, who made brilliant use of existing material. Almost everything in this novel is proven by historical facts. The author provides plenty of names, book titles and etchings (from his own vast collection) as evidence. Almost, because SS and his alter ego Abbé Dalla Piccola are Eco's own creations. So is the mysterious storyteller, who cuts short and speeds up SS's diary throughout the novel.
But not thrilling?
In Paris, Simonini, once a minor character in Garibaldi's quest for Italian unity, turns out to be a psychotic and paranoid man focused on cash and good food. He abhors women but is not attracted to men either. The novel relates in great detail countless intrigues, conflicts and wars nobody today is interested in. The psychotic dimension is confusing, slows the novel down and should cost the novel stars. Readers may tire from too much repetition of abundant evidence of prejudice. The novel reads like a dissertation and makes readers struggle: it is also too long to enjoy.
Eco became world famous with "The Name of the Rose", a medieval tale, filmed with Sean Connery in the lead. This book is a brilliant reconstruction about how the infamous "Protocols of the Elders of Zion", which inspired Adolf Hitler to instigate the "Endlösing", was perhaps collated and written. Perhaps this novel is also Eco's response to growing feelings of popular anger and the growing appeal of populist leaders and parties in contemporary Europe, their appeal fed by spin doctors and strategists as vile as Simonini. A difficult, tiresome, but morally sound novel.