BY SEAN CLARK
Author: Umberto Eco
2011, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Filed Under: Literary, Historical.
There’s but one fictional element to Eco’s newest novel: the main character. Every other character, conversation, and event in this dense novel is pulled from historical records, or else constitutes an amalgamation of real persons or happenings. This is Eco’s claim, and if true–and I’m inclined to believe it is–this book is even more impressive than it would be on a blind read.
Set in Europe in the last quarter of the 19th century, The Prague Cemetery tells the tale of Captain Simonini, a French-Italian document forger who works, more or less freelance, as a subversive agent for a number of different governments. His profession sometimes has him infiltrating radical groups in order to incite incidents (in hopes of swinging public or political favor back to the ruling party), and other times falsifying documents and news stories in order to influence public opinion or have someone tossed in jail. He’s a murderous villain, but Eco’s comprehensive and careful narration makes him easy to cling to as a narrator and as a character–in that regard he’s got a bit of Iago in him.
The improbability of a reader finding Simonini likeable is all the more exacerbated by his personal agenda. Simonini is ferverntly anti-semitic. The novel is steeped in the nationalist ideologies (and fear-mongering) that was so rampant in the decades building up to the great wars of the 20th century. Much of that boiled down to deeply anti-semitic movements across most of Europe. The Prague Cemetery opens with a chapter-long racist tirade, not only denigrating the Jews, but pinpointing and exploiting ethnic and cultural stereotypes and hateful prosaisms about every race and nation in Europe. By opening the book with a tearing-down of everyone, Eco cleans the slate for Simonini. He’s not a fascist, because he would hate the fascists too. Instead Eco has created a character that represents that dark part in our collective mindset, the one that, amongst other things and whether we agree with them or not, recognizes stereotypes and associates them with groups and cultures.
In Simonini’s case, he was indoctrinated with these ideas at an early age. Young Simonini’s grandfather bequeathed him a copy of a letter he’d once wrote to high ranking member of the clergy warning of a conspiracy between the Jews and Freemasons to take over the world (I’m grossly oversimplifying). Hateful conspiracy theory stuff. Simonini, through all his tasks and forgeries, keeps as his own priority the creation of an ever-evolving grand forgery detailing a secret meeting (in a Prague cemetery) between Jewish elders in which they plot the economic and ideological take-over of the world.
Simonini works his document over countless times, taking into account all the political lessons and cultural fears he comes across in his various tasks and subversions. (These sometimes involve defaming someone, sometimes involve constructing and executing a terrorist plot, perhaps to sink an ocean liner or destroy a subway tunnel.) As his document evolves into a powerful piece of progaganda, he also disseminates it in parts. Thus the lies perpetuate into other lies and ideologies. The whole thing sounds insane. A forged document describing a ludicrous conspiracy theory about a secret society of the world’s most powerful Jews meeting in a graveyard to plot world domination. But this part we already know is true: in real life, it is called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and it gave Hitler his justification for the Holocaust.
Its American publication was funded by Henry Ford. It is because something so insane can be real that Eco’s creation is so powerful. The Holocaust wasn’t the Nazis’ fault; it was the world’s for allowing it to happen. Simonini embodies that piece of us as a people that turns its back to atrocities we find politically inconvenient or sees basic human rights as debatable topics. As Simonini puts it: “To hate someone, you don’t have to speak the same language.”
In writing a sweeping history of the past, of a section we like to blot out as vanquished along with the axis of evil, Eco draws connections to our past, like a grandson seeing his visage in a grandfather’s portrait. In The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, Eco biographed a culture through pop art and pulp fiction. Here, in much the same way, he cuts up a dark moment in fairly recent human history, and collages together an ugly but honest reflection of our current society. The Prague Cemetery is not the easiest read, but it is an important one.
Similar Reads: The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (Eco), The Erasers (Robbe-Grillet)