Darkness descends

When young Patrick Leigh Fermor was making his way across Europe in the 1930s, he spent many a night in the home of some scion of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, along with a fair number of German nobility. Each house had a library which included the Almanach de Gotha and Burke's Peerage, essential reading if you needed to know who was who in upper-crust Europe. Perhaps more surprisingly, and bemusingly to Leigh Fermor, most of the libraries also contained the Semi-Gotha. This purported to show how Jews had infiltrated European nobility, and was thrust upon Leigh Fermor, along with the even more bizarre Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a volume that was the mother of all conspiracy theories in which Jews attempt to take over the world.

Leigh Fermor was bemused by his hosts' responses to the books. How could they believe such blatant rubbish? Surely they knew that much of it had already been disproved? He didn't take the books seriously, how could he? They didn't make any sense, they were just racist rubbish, surely anyone could see that?

You would think so, but European politics was about to take a very dark turn. With fanatics in power, who believed (either sincerely or for their own political ends) that every word in these anti-Semitic tomes was true, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was about to plunge 6,000,000 European Jews into an abyss of darkness.

Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery would appear to be a dark satire on how conspiracy theories are formed with his central character, Simonini, an ace forger, at the centre of a conspiracy to implicate Jews, Freemasons and Satanists in all the evils of Europe. It's one weird story, and one that purports to be mainly based on truth, dragging in, among other things the Dreyfus Case and Garibaldi, with of course the exception of the conspiracy storyline that lies at the heart of the novel.

But it's so unwieldy and unstructured that you start wondering, what's the point? Even worse, you begin to wonder is this an author who has started to fall for some of the theories. There is some seriously nasty anti-semitism in this book. And what I found concerning was that there was no point at which it was treated as being unacceptable or just plain wrong. I came away from it feeling profoundly concerned. I had kept reading it, thinking that it would change, that there would be some form of redemption, but no.

Does Eco have a point that conspiracy theories abound, and can be created out of very flimsy structures before exploding into what can pass for truth? Yes, of course he does. But Prague Cemetery is a nasty book. You can tell yourself that Eco is, by and large, not pulp fiction, surely no-one who is reasonably educated would take a word of this novel as a belief system to follow; but the fact of the matter is that the architects of the Final Solution weren't mad men, or unintelligent. They read Goethe and listened to Schubert, they liked art and Bach, and yet they could believe the kind of bilge that is spouted in this book.

As a novel, I don't know what Eco was trying to say. It left me feeling profoundly uncomfortable to the extent that I don't think that I could ever read anything by him again. Perhaps, this is the point, to show how nonsense can manifest into evil, I don't know. Either way it was not a pleasant read.


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