Hearing the Eco

Nineteenth-century Europe—from Turin to Prague to Paris—abounds with the ghastly and the mysterious. Conspiracies rule history. Jesuits plot against Freemasons. Italian republicans strangle priests with their own intestines. French criminals plan bombings by day and celebrate Black Masses at night. Every nation has its own secret service, perpetrating forgeries, plots, and massacres. From the unification of Italy to the Paris Commune to the Dreyfus Affair to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Europe is in tumult and everyone needs a scapegoat. But what if, behind all of these conspiracies both real and imagined, lay one lone man? What if that evil genius created its most infamous document?

Detail of an illustration from The Prague Cemetery. From Umberto Eco’s collection.

Last night, the Toronto Reference Library’s Appel Salon was brighter than ever with the presence of International literary star, Umberto Eco, talking about his last novel,The Prague Cemetery. Even arriving early, we find an unending line of people waiting for rush seats for the event, hosted by CBC Radio’s Michael Enright and presented by Tina Srebotnjak, Manager of the Program Department of the Reference Library.

Eco’s sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, published last year and already a bestseller in Europe, is rife with fabrications, conspiracy theories, fakery, espionage and political drama. It’s a complex exploration of xenophobia and religious fanaticism, revealing how certain events and widespread beliefs led to horrifying acts of persecution and war. Set in late-19th-century Europe, its protagonist is Captain Simone Simonini, an adventurer, forger, and secret agent. The fictional character’s anti-Semitic and misogynistic leanings have already incited controversy. The only fictional character in the novel, Simonini hobnobs with the likes of Sigmund Freud and Alexander Dumas, among others.

Eco explains, “Sometimes you have to use fiction because real stories are more difficult for the reader to believe.”

Despite how people may feel about his protagonist, it wasn’t long before Eco himself won his audience over. His dense, intricate and staid novels are in direct contrast with his likeable, friendly personality. The Italian essayist, novelist, semiotician, critic and philosopher surprised everybody when he talked about his work and himself with humor and modesty.