Eco (The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, 2005, etc.) doffs his scholarly gown and dons his trench coat for another bracing—and controversial—mystery.
Semiotician, medievalist and linguist, Eco delights in secret codes, cabals and conspiracy theories. He’s got a humdinger in this new high-level whodunit, which features a fictional fellow—Simone Simonini by name—who wanders, darkly, throughout a late-19th-century Europe packed with very real people. Simonini, 67 years old when we meet him in 1897, is detestable. He’s a study in suburban prejudices, among them a virulent strain of anti-Semitism, though, to be fair, he’s got something bad to say about just about everyone: The Jew, he grumbles, is “as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a Gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmyk, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti.” Did he leave out the Germans? No, they smell bad owing to a surfeit of beer and pork sausage. No one evades Simonini’s withering glare, but it’s the Jews he’s really after, working farragos and guiles to stir up hatred against him through manufactured events up to and including the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that tract that gave the Nazis so much fuel for their fires. In an oddball but bravado performance, Eco makes Simonini—who doesn’t like Freemasons or Jesuits either—many things: a forger, a master of disguise, a secret agent and double agent, a shadowy presence who’s up to more than we’ll ever know, and on top of all that quite a good cook—there are recipes for fine dishes tucked inside these pages, and recipes for bombs, too. Simonini also keeps good and interesting company, hanging out with Sigmund Freud here, crossing paths with Dumas and Garibaldi and Captain Dreyfus there, and otherwise enjoying the freedom of the continent, as if unstoppable and inevitable.
What does it all add up to? An indictment of the old Europe, for one thing, and a perplexing, multilayered, attention-holding mystery. Expect it to find many readers.