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The Prague CemeteryI’ve read a few books by Eco, now – The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and now this. While I didn’t think The Prague Cemetery was as good as the first two novels in that list, it was much, much better than the third.

The premise of this book is quite daring – on several levels. Using a wide array of historically accurate sources, Eco creates a fictional character who almost single-handedly, it seems, creates the vitriolic anti-Semitism of fin de siècle Europe, which culminates in the Russian creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which then, of course, leads to the terrible events of the 1930s and 40s.

Daring, because the subject matter is so sensitive; and because Eco’s narrative pretty attributes it all to one man; and because, except for the main character, it’s all – apparently – historically accurate: all the other characters (with a couple of minor exceptions and conflations) are real historical personages, all the events really happened. Daring also, because the main character develops two personalities, whose diaries and notes form letters to each other.

(Fictional) Simone Simonini, inspired by his (real) grandfather’s anti-Semitism as expressed in a (real) letter to (the real) Abbé Barruel, embarks on a career as a dishonest notary; he becomes a cunning forger first in his native Italy (Piedmont, actually, as there was no Italy as we know it in the mid-nineteenth century) and later in his adoptive France. He gets caught up in various historical events – Garibaldi’s battles in Sicily, the Fourth French Revolution, sensational exposés of Masonic rituals – and all the while develops his plans to discredit the Jewish people by concocting a fanciful story of a group of rabbis meeting in the Prague cemetery to discuss their plans to take over the world by such dastardly means as infiltrating governments and banks, introducing freedom of speech and social reforms and promoting republicanism.

Many long stretches of the book are fascinating reconstructions of historical intrigues. The sub-plot regarding a false persona that was created through psychological trauma is very promising at the beginning, but quickly becomes little more than a foil for Simonini’s amnesiac search for his own history. The depth of his hatred for Judaism – and for Jesuits, women, Germans, the French, Italians – in fact everyone except himself – is also quite entertaining. The various guises and ploys, plots and actions that Simonini is involved with make him a very appealing anti-hero. The milieu of late nineteenth century history-making and hysteria is expertly recreated.

And when I was old enough to understand, [my grandfather] reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmuck, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust – the result of circumcision, which makes them more erectile, with a monstrous disproportion between their dwarfish build and the thickness of their semi-mutilated protuberance.

I dreamt about Jews every night for years and years.

A few facts make the narrative drag. The join-the-dots approach to constructing a plot means that the whole thing is rather meandering and it ends very suddenly. The double-narrative (actually, it’s a triple-narrative, as there is a Narrator-with-a-capital-N, too) doesn’t quite work; the mystery as to whether the secondary personality is a figment or a real person isn’t that mysterious. And lists – throughout his work, Eco cannot resist a good list, and they do start to seem like he’s showing off his impressive erudition.

We decided that the Grand Master of the Supreme Council of Charleston bore the titles of Brother General, Sovereign Commander, Master Adept of the Grand Symbolic Lodge, Secret Master, Perfect Master, Intimate Secretary, Provost and Judge, Master Elect of the Nine, Illustrious Elect of the Fifteen, Sublime Knight Elect, Chief of the Twelve Tribes, Grand Master Architect, Scottish Grand Elect of the Sacred Visage, Perfect and Sublime Mason, Knight of the East or of the Sword, Prince of Jerusalem, Knight of the East and West, Sovereign Prince of the Rose Croix, Grand Pontiff, Venerable Master ad vitam of all Symbolic Lodges, Noachite of Prussian Knight, Grand Master of the Key, Prince of Libanus and of the Tabernacle, Knight of the Brazen Serpent, Knight Commander of the Temple, Knight of the Sun, Prince Adept, Scottish Knight of Saint Andrew, Grand Elect Knight Kadosh, Perfect Initiate, Grand Inspector Inquisitor, Clear and Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret, Thirty-Three, Most Powerful Sovereign Commander General Grand Master Conservator of the Sacred Palladium, Sovereign Pontiff of Universal Freemasonry.

Umberto Eco

This was an entertaining and fascinating read, but it felt a little hampered by being tied to a range of historical events – albeit important and interesting historical events. So while this wasn’t my favourite Eco novel, it has restored my faith in him after the navel-gazing-fest of Queen Loana. I’m ready to read one of his other books, now – maybe Baudolino.

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The train to Paris was fast – it only took 80 minutes, just about long enough for us to get settled in and watch the first episode of the new season of Game of Thrones. At Gare du Nord, we waited about half an hour in line to buy some tickets for the Metro then made our way down to the home of our next host.

Pierre was the latest in a growing line of great hosts. As soon as we arrived, he treated us to a lunch of salad and home-made pizza. He was a friendly, gentle guy with a great collection of fantasy and sf, lots of Japanese stuff and board games including both English and French versions of A Game of Thrones and Battlestar Galactica.

We didn’t do much for the rest of the day – except in the evening, when we went to meet Habiba’s friend from university, Andy. He turned out to be a sweet, talkative guy with a flamboyant dress sense; he told us a lot about the art world. We had dinner at a small, pub-ish restaurant; they had burgers; I had one of the French meals Pierre had recommended earlier (he didn’t have too many recommendations as he prefers Asian cuisine): duck confit with potatoes. It was very tasty – salty and crispy round the edges.

The following day, Pierre took us on a walking tour of Paris. We started at a Roman amphitheatre, went on to the Panthéon, where various personages from French history are interred, through Luxembourg Gardens, site of the French Senate, on to Notre Dame, stopping for lunch at another small restaurant (I had poached eggs in chive sauce for a starter and steak for my main course; Habiba had a prawn salad and lamb kebab; Pierre outdid us by having bone marrow on toast and steak tartare (ie, raw minced beef, which he mixed with a raw egg yolk and and various condiments)).

After lunch we went into Notre Dame, visited the nearby Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation, had fancy ice cream, walked along the Seine a little way, passing Pont Neuf, into the Louvre courtyard – site of the famous glass pyramid – into the nearest part of the Tuileries, the long park in line with the Champs Elysées – the Arc de Triomphe was visible in the distance – by the Palais Garnier – the opera house – to the Moulin Rouge theatre and the nearby area of sex shops, and to Montmartre, where we went into the Church of St Pierre (no relation; Pierre explained that the name – Pierre, or Peter – was related to the fact that the church was on a hill, St Peter being the ‘rock’, the name thus related to words like petrify) and finally to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica.

This latter is fantastically beautiful inside, especially above the altar, where there’s an enormous gold and blue mosaic of Jesus. You’re not allowed to take photos inside, but that doesn’t seem to stop anyone – there were even plenty of flashes going off. I got told off by an African woman after I took my last shot.

The following day, Habiba and I went to the Arc de Triomphe, walked down the Champs Elysées and finally reached the Eiffel Tower. We waited in line for some time – not that long: we elected to go up the stairs to the deuxiemme étage rather than take the ascenseur. At the second level, we took the other lift up to the top. From there the view was pretty breathtaking. It’s astonishing to think that a building over a hundred years old still dominates the skyline in central Paris. The city lay low and flat below us; the only rivals to the tower were Sacré-Coeur on its hill and the business district way off in the distance.

On the way down, I was possibly nearly pickpocketed by a little boy with his female relatives – they looked to be Roma. He was darting about in the crowd, probably just playing, but at one point he had his hands on my back pockets. When we were down and out we realised that Habiba was going to be late for her eight o’clock date with Andy – she got there late, but successfully hooked up with him.

I headed back to Pierre’s where I met a couple of his friends, Bertrand and Agnes (pronounced ‘Ann-yes’) – the latter of whom bore more than a passing resemblance to Angelina Jolie – and we played A Game of Thrones late into the night. The game proved to be like a smaller scale but more complicated version of Risk.

On our final day, we didn’t do too much sightseeing; I had promised to go to the Louvre, but going to bed at about 3 am argued against it. We did have a little dinner party in the evening with both Pierre and Andy, though. The following day, we headed to the not-too-distant Gare de Lyon to embark on a very long journey to Venice.

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