Captain Simonini, a notary, forger, and spy, wakes up one day in his Paris apartment without remembering his past. He begins to reconstruct his memories by writing in a journal and by having a written conversation with his neighbour Abbé Dalla Piccola. The story takes them from Piedmont to Sicily and finally Paris where Simonini devises conspiracies to fill his pockets and further his ideological goals. Soon they begin to wonder if they are not the same person.
This is such a clever and intriguing book because Eco takes the fictional character of Simonini and makes him a linchpin of historical events like Garibaldi’s campaigns in Italy or the Dreyfus affair. He is the man in the shadows, forging documents, spying on people and using them like chess pieces in his machinations, and if unavoidable, getting rid of them by any means necessary, even if it means he has to kill them with his own hands. While his main motivation is greed, his hate for basically everyone plays a significant role as well. He dislikes the French, communists, Freemasons, women, Russians, Germans, and priests, but above all, he hates Jews. Consequently, his magnum opus is a fictional account of twelve rabbis meeting in the Prague cemetery and planning world domination. This text, called “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, as well as all the events and characters, except Simonini himself, are historical, and Eco weaves history and fiction together masterfully.
His observations in regards to conspiracies are on point and especially relevant today. Simonini has no problems creating plots by pandering to people’s underlying biases, for instance, the antisemitism prevalent in 19th century society when creating “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. Simonini hates Jews, so this is extra motivation for him, but the people in power also agree with him because they need a scapegoat to distract the people from their own doings, and no one is better suited than the Jews, who can be branded as an “enemy within”, and who have been resented by many people for a long time anyway. The existing antisemitism is therefore stoked on purpose by “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and its publication and other events obviously lead to the later rise of National Socialism. Eco’s story ends in 1898, but the future already looms large.
What I don’t necessarily like is the subplot regarding Simonini’s and Dalla Piccola’s identity. To the reader, it is clear from the beginning that they are the same person, and the back and forth between them is dragged out too much and it doesn’t even add anything to an already compelling story. This subplot should have either been severely shortened or maybe even cut completely. There are also some other parts that could have been whittled down, but this is obviously par for the course for any of Eco’s books.
Otherwise, this is a great book with a highly intriguing premise, very good execution, and a clear message. The hateful and bigoted protagonist, however, can be off-putting once in a while, and I also think that at least some knowledge of the time period is necessary to get the most out of the story. It’s not my favourite book by Eco, but it’s as educational as any of his works, and a quite intriguing mix of riveting and disturbing.