When one reads Umberto Eco’s ‘The Prague Cemetery’, one is enveloped in dense detail, like walking into a thick fog; the only way out is to prepare in advance, to know the terrain beforehand so one can hope to grope about and work his way towards his destination; feeling his way by touching any nearby structure, or walking towards some dim outline, in the hope that it would give an idea where one is. It is the same feeling one gets when reading his other works like ‘In the Name of the Rose’ or ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’; one should read a synopsis or book review to understand the premise or plot in advance before plunging into the miasma; soon one gets used to the gloom, sees better and work his way forward with confidence; perhaps that’s why his latest book has pictures; a device to keep the reader focused on his book instead of throwing it away. Otherwise, an advanced degree in European culture and history, a familiarity with obscure historical legends plus expertise in medieval folklore are the required tools to read Eco’s work; in which case the fog lifts and one strives forward through the erudite prose with assurance; armed with multiple PhDs and the teaching available only to scholars.
European writers have this habit, to display their erudition evolving from their Old World heritage; but Spanish writers like Arturo-Perez Reverte do a better job in keeping their prose attractive to the general public; unlike Umberto Eco who follows the style of Alexander Dumas but with more detail, expecting the readers to know the context like a professor who requires his students to read the text book before attending class or face public scorn. In his latest book, one should be familiar with the obscure ‘Protocols of Zion’, apparently a hoax created by some Russian writer, about prominent Jews and rabbis meeting in a Prague cemetery to plot the control of Europe; a tract that led to the persecution of Jews from the pogroms in Russia to the Holocaust in World War II; a work that directly influenced Adolf Hitler. The tale is told by an anti-Semite working in Europe during the revolutionary upheavals of the 1890s; Garibaldi’s attempt to unify Italy and create a republic, the Paris commune in France and the Dreyfus affair are the backdrop for this sinister forger and assassin, as conspiracy is woven into the capitals of Europe, working with an obscure band of conspirators, actual historical figures. One gets the context and background by reading book reviews and not from the pages of Eco’s novel; a deficiency perhaps of planning, plotting or style.
If one does not have any personal connection to this sort of story, will one read it? Perhaps the attraction to conspiracy theories, like a secret knowledge to be gained; resembling Dan Brown’s novels that reveal an underlying reality existing below the surface; satisfying an urge to be ‘in the know’ like a political junkie forever listening to gossip. Hence, one is a consumer of media, like a gourmand, one becomes a glutton for information; measured in bits and bytes, one can gauge how much one consumes data. But instead of being corpulent like Orson Welles, an information glutton displays signs of over extension and stress, losing sleep and perhaps over eating, too. Reading Umberto Eco requires one to read trivia, absorb useless knowledge in order to understand his work, a rewarding experience in a previous time but now a waste (the other measure of consuming information is the time it takes to absorb data). Here lies the dilemma of Eco’s books, interesting and engaging but requiring more effort to enjoy, in need of extra research before one can understand; perhaps a rewrite is needed but at the risk of losing the charm, of hearing the voice of an erudite raconteur.