With a blurb the ends “But what if, behind all these conspiracies, lies just one man?” it is clear that this book is classic Eco. In this case the religious conspiracies revolve from accusations and counter-accusations against the Jews, the Catholics, the Socialists, and the Masons in the 19th Century.
Set mostly in France, the novel follows Simonini, a forger of wills and seller of stolen hosts through the eyes of an unnamed narrator reading his diary and paraphrasing it, purportedly for our ease of understanding. Simonini awakens at the start of the novel with amnesia, and starts the diary to collect his memories. Starting with his childhood and catching up to the time the diary was written, his history is described in parallel with his attempts to reconstruct the recent past. Initially Simonini appears a rabid anti-Semite although his disdain for both other nations and his own is almost equal, making me wonder if the anti-Semitism was real or a mask for a wider and more general misanthropy.
Slowly he rebuilds a history of creating fake documents to reveal secret conspiracies by first one group then another. Driven equally by the desire to make money and the fear of being punished by the governments he has duped, he is trapped in a spiral of ever-greater false conspiracies.
Moving from employer to employer, he creates an ever-wider cast of false personalities, linked only by a common love of good food. Interspersed into his diary are notes left by a priest, Abbé Dalla Piccola, who lives in a connected flat and also has amnesia. Although it is revealed almost immediately that Simonini has access to make-up and disguises and Dalla Piccola seems to have a better knowledge of Simonini’s private actions than he does, as the novel unfolds the reader’s automatic assumption that Dalla Piccola is merely character Simonini created is challenged.
Eco ends the novel with a short afterword stating that the events and people mentioned were real, apart from Simonini who was created by merging several real people. However his skill in describing Simonini’s creation of false narratives by merging existing documents and events made it seem to me like a knowing wink after a tall tale.
As well as other novel’s by Eco, especially Foucault’s Pendulum, the cynical but all to believable attempts of church and state to win hearts and minds through defaming opponents instead of providing a benefit reminded me strongly of Luther Blisset’s Q.