Friday, August 12, 2011

2,553: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

In the interests of full disclosure and my own limited sense of ethics, I should start by saying thank you to the folks at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, who sent me an electronic ARC of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Prague Cemetery.  I should also tell you that The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, two of Eco’s previous works, are two of my favourite books, so I was already pre-disposed to like this one.

The Prague Cemetery is set in the second half of the19th Century, a period of intense political upheaval in Europe, a time when new nationalisms and class-based ideologies were clashing with old, established systems of rule.  It was an epoch rife with secret societies, political and esoteric clubs and conspiracies involving Jesuits, Freemasons, Satanists, monarchists, republicans, spies and revolutionaries.

Eco’s premise is that, contrary to received wisdom, one man was behind all of these conspiracies (including the Dreyfus affair).  That man was one Captain Simonini, the book’s protagonist and, according to Eco, the only fictional character in the novel.  I use the term “protagonist” advisedly as Simonini is, as Eco acknowledges, a hateful man with no redeeming features.

This is not to say that Captain Simonini is some criminal mastermind.  In fact, he is a crooked notary, master forger and occasional spy.  Entangled at various times with the secret services of Piedmont, France and Russia, Simonini produces a series of forged documents to be used as evidence of conspiracy in many of the key events of the second half of the century, including the Risorgimento, the Franco-Prussian War and the Dreyfus Affair.  As time goes by, his concoctions become ever more elaborate until, fuelled by his own increasing anti-semitism, he produces an account of a meeting of the elders of Zion in the Jewish cemetery in Prague, a document that will become known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, probably the most notorious forgery ever made.

If anyone is thinking Dan Brown at this point, then Eco is way ahead of you.  In an astute piece of flattery, Eco writes in his introductory letter:

“I am expecting two kinds of readers.  The first has no idea that all these things really happened, knows nothing about nineteenth century literature, and might even have taken Dan Brown seriously……………………….The second, however, knows or senses that I am recounting things that really happened.”

You and I, of course, the implication goes, will fall into the second class of reader, more informed, more sensible.  But wait.  Is Eco playing a clever game with us?  Through his blurring of the boundaries between fact and fiction in the book, is he luring us into a more subtle self-delusion, where we start to accept that he is recounting fact, thereby becoming as gullible as those silly Dan Brown believers?

The Prague Cemetery contains many of the hallmarks of Eco’s works.  We are given three narrators: an unknown narrator who reads and comments on Simonini’s written memoir, Simonini himself through the memoir and a Jesuit priest, the Abbe della Piccola, who also communicates through the memoir as an interpolator in Simonini’s page.  The identity of della Piccola is a running sub-plot.  Is he a real person, a figment of Simonini’s imagination or conscience or evidence of a second identity of Simonini?  In the layering of narrators, Eco plays with our need to be able to trust our narrator to deliver the true narrative.

At a higher level, this blurring of truth and fiction is also at the core of Simonini’s work.  Forgeries are used either to prove the existence of a conspiracy or to encourage individuals to take action in support of such a conspiracy.  Eventually, Simonini’s lies become accepted as truth – in the case of his work in the Dreyfus Case and the Protocols themselves, even after they are demonstrated to be false.  Lies become truth and take on a life of their own.

Another of Eco’s trademarks is the breadth of his knowledge and the depth of his research.  History, politics, architecture, geography, cuisine, art, are all grist to his literary mill.  At times, the level of detail and reference can almost be overwhelming but, overall, it adds even more depth to his narrative.

An interesting theme is that Simonini’s fictional conspiracy remains largely the same throughout the book.  Derived from a mixture of anti-semitic writings by writers such as Barruel and Sue and 19th Century novels (Dumas makes an appearance), the same issues are used by him in purported conspiracies by totally different groups including Jesuits, Freemasons and, of course, Jews.  This demonstrates the essential poverty behind group conspiracies – the actual conspiracy is really just a series of hackneyed complaints or fears of the hated group.  As Eco himself has commented, the framework remains the same, only the target changes.  Indeed, as Simonini and his contact in the Russian Okhrana discuss, the theory is usual contradictory, involving mutually exclusive allegations.

Already published in Spanish and Italian, The Prague Cemetery has the distinction of having been criticised by both the Vatican and the Chief Rabbi of Rome.  With differing levels of sophistication, they claim that the virulent anti-semitism displayed by Simonini may actually cause some readers to become “tainted” by it or even to come to believe that Simonini’s rants are true.

This begs the question of how far can authors go in using an unpleasant character as their voice.  It seems to me that an exploration of the mindset of an evil character is as valid as it would be for a virtuous character.  I would also posit that a reader that is suddenly going to become anti-semitic as a result of reading The Prague Cemetery is probably already quite a way down that road or is actually unlikely to be reading the book in the first place.  It also occurs to me that the logical consequence of the article is that bad authors could write from such a standpoint but good authors couldn’t as they are likely to be more convincing in their characterisation.  In any event, although it must be conceded that Eco’s language in voicing Simonini’s anti-semitism, misogyny and xenophobia is strong, he is such a distasteful character that noone sensible could possibly find his views attractive.

The Prague Cemetery is due to be published in English in November.  As with his other novels, it is both highly readable and erudite.  Deeply researched, complex in structure and rich in detail and character, it is poles apart from Dan Brown despite its focus on conspiracy theories.  This book is well up to Eco’s standards and, if not replacing The Name of the Rose in my affections, is certainly worth spending time with.


Rachel Brooks said...

Great review and happy Sunday! I hope you’re having an awesome weekend!

Also, I’m a new follower—wonderful blog! Stop by my blog and follow me too? :)

Falaise said...

Thank you very much for the kind words, Rachel. I will check your blog out.