Have finished reading “The Prague Cemetary” by Umberto Eco.

It’s a tough read, mostly because it’s main character is an anti-hero called Simonini who doesn’t like much apart from fine dining. He’s especially anti-Semetic, and the intensity of anti-Jewish comment never lets up. The storylines concern his exploits working as a forger in the employ of various Secret Service agencies from European countries including France and Russia. The timing of the novel is late 19th Century and it’s leading up to the struggle between imperial powers that was WW1.

The ‘life work’ of this anti-hero is the creation (i.e. forgery) of the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” which you’ll find even today quoted as a real document on far Right websites propagating the myth of Jewish dominance and emergence of a new world order. In the words of Rabbi Joseph Teluskin, “Thousands, perhaps even tens of thousands, of Jews have died because of this infamous forgery.” I think he may still be under-estimating it, so if you ever need an example of a dangerous book, this one will meet the criteria. It was a favourite book of Adolf Hitler’s, so this is also a backdrop to WW2, the Holocaust and the Final Solution. The title is taken from the ‘fact’ that these protocols are a record from a meeting of Rabbis in the Jewish Cemetary in Prague. The Rabbis discuss how they will corrupt Gentile society and culture for the benefit of Jewry and Zionism.

Eco finishes with a message that “they” are still among us. Given the deeds of far-right maniacs in Norway (for example), he isn’t wrong.

Most of what comes from the mouth of Simonini  is pure vitriol. The beginnings of conspiracy theories start with an actual book published by a French Jesuit named Abbé Augustin Barruel who reckoned that Philosophers, Freemasons and the Illuminati were plotting the overthrow of all European heads of state and religions. Of course, at the time  there were actually Jacobins behind the French Revolution and other radical movements, so like in any good conspiracy the seed was watered and fed. You might laugh, but when I was passing through religious-taught schools in 1970s Ireland, there was still a deep and vocal distrust of Freemasons and Communists  among the priests (Orwell’s “1984” proved it all, you see). Later I became aware of the existence of Catholic Secret Societies such as Opus Dei.

Life is really stranger than fiction. One quotation I’d hear from communists during my student days was that people would never be free until “the last of the kings was strangled by the guts of the last priest”. This is actually a quote from Jean Meslier, a 17th century Catholic priest of 40 years service who (it turned out upon his death) wrote the first book recommending Atheism as a philosophy.

It’s a bit of a jump, but the attribution by footnotes style of the opening chapters of The Prague Cemetary put me in mind of Brian O’Nolan (writing as Flann O’Brien) in “The Third Policeman”; and especially the way he uses the fictional polymath of the de Selby character. These footnotes ramble on, appearing to provide an anchor to the increasingly surreal elements of the main book, but in reality doing nothing of the sort. Just like conspiracy theories…

It’s a very 19th Century device. By using it so well Eco shows that he understands how novels are constructed, and in his time Brian O’Nolan had the same ability. There’s one wonderful example where he starts a footnote on one page and finishes it eight pages later having completely wandered off the original topic. A genius.

Another infamous anti-hero is that of Jean Des Essientes who appears in “A rebours” (“Against the Grain”or “Wrong Way”), a novel by Joris-Karl Huysmans. It was written in 1884. It’s said to be the “poisonous” novel that Oscar Wilde references as the one that corrupts his character, Dorian Gray, and leads to his downfall. The book was cited during Oscar’s trial by the prosecution as evidence of sodomite leanings. The Des Essientes character has also tired of life, and seeks solace in the sensual. It’s the book where he covers his tortoise in jewels, leading to the allegorical death of the unfortunate creature. One of his few remaining pleasures is Gastronomy, and that reappears with Eco’s Simonini. I like the story where Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley went on a sort of pilgrimage to meet Huysmans in Paris, only to find that he had become a Trappist monk who refused to meet them and encouraged them instead to abandon their wicked decadent ways. Beardsley must have took him seriously – he later converted to Catholicism and wanted to burn his erotic drawings before he died.

What links Huysmans, Brian O’Nolan and Umberto Eco is they all possess an encyclopediac knowledge that they can unleash upon their novels. It’s as if they have rummaged in a library of classic texts until every word was jumbled up inside them in a seemingly useless mess. O’Nolan and Huysmans also shared the dubious distincton of working as bored Civil Servants in Dublin and Paris respectively, but as far as I know Eco has only ever been forced to become an Academic.

Nothing surreal happens in my life. However, I did return from my holiday in Ireland to find two letters waiting. The first was from the President of Ireland wishing me a recovery from my Cancer (sincere thanks, Michael D, it lifted my spirits big time). The second was from the British Army containing a medal for my voluntary service. Before the big bad bogeyman (aka Gerry Adams) gets the wrong idea, I’d like to put it on record that I have never served the British Crown nor furthered her interests (apart from paying tax, like). Like John Lennon before me, I’ll be returning the medal.