Article published on December 17, 2011.
The Italian author (and established semiotician, thereby studying symbols, language and communication), Umberto Eco has crafted a fictional nineteenth century conspiracy embedded with actual historical characters, albeit the times lines are not strictly accurate.What he has created is a complicated puzzle, layered with red herrings intended to test the reader.
Quirky from the outset, the book has Eco as a narrator, following the fictional narrator Captain Simonini, a forger seeking to make his fortune, but needing to play with the fox and the hounds to accomplish this. Simonini blatantly prejudiced, is an anti-Semitic, seeing Jews as the route to all problems, but neither speaking warmly of the Catholic Jesuits or Masons either. Whilst involved in the creation of a book centred around religion, he seeks to create a coup to reap the finances he desires and political power to accomplish it. To do this he capitalizes upon such as the historical plotting of Jesuits against Freemasons. Part of this involves the nocturnal gathering of Rabbis in a Prague Cemetery, where they plot world domination – depicted in the title of the book. Eco cleverly uses historical occurrences as they could have been had they all happened as part of this unusual medley. But can one man really be the master of them all?
Eco paints his own versions of the historical characters, ranging from military/political leader Garibaldi to the Turkish con man Osbey, spanning across predominantly Italy and France. Rambling in style, but plastered with subtle detail, having an encyclopaedia to hand helps to make sense of what is being covered. A mix of chaos, distrust, murder and bomb plots fuel an appetite for setting up scapegoats and instilling all means to achieve self-preservation. Greed is accompanied by very high risks.
To add intrigue into the mix Simonini also has an alter-ego, the priest, Abbé Dalla Piccola. For me this was the most intriguing part of the story, as well as filling some critical gaps. Never in the same adjoining building at the same time, but aware of part of each others lives, their proximity is unnerving. Murders take place that cannot quite be recollected and bodies end up stored in the sewer in the cellar. The story also has a gothic twist as experimentation with diabolism takes place forcing Simonini to face his own reality. Whilst not uninteresting, this part of the story feels like it has been bolted on to propel the story towards a conclusion of sorts.
Whilst Eco is undoubtedly a gifted writer, his desire to cram in so much detail and be the master of the reader, and not allow the story to take a linear outcome may alienate and frustrate readers. He denounces readers that enjoy Dan Brown and relishes his own intellectual abilities. The story being so layered and detailed plods along only picking up the pace on a few occasions. With a large hardback of over 400 pages it risks feeling more like a tome than an indulgent read. Although it has sold over a million copies across Europe , I would consider it is more a niche read than an acclaimed best seller.