Sunday, November 11, 2012

Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery

Umberto Eco's latest novel is a moderately interesting work about forgery and fiction. The main narrator is a small-time Italian forger and informer named Simonini, who ends up writing both the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the notes that landed Alfred Dreyfus in prison as a spy. He suffers for a time from a split personality, and on the advice of a young Sigmund Freud sets out to resolve his troubles by writing an account of his life. What a life it was, from an attempt to betray Garibaldi on the eve of Italy's reunification to high treason in France at the century's end. Simonini is a loathsome creature, a hater of humanity in general and Jews in particular who cares only for himself and fine food. He delivers several offensive rants that are redeemed only by the universal nature of his hatreds, which take in pretty much everyone.

As a novel, The Prague Cemetery really didn't do much for me. I kept reading because of the fascinating narrative of events in late nineteenth century Europe. In Eco's telling, European history is a mass of conspiracies, engineered by Jesuits, Masons, revolutionaries, and the secret police of various nations. All of these groups find Simonini useful at one time or another, and his consummate skill at forgery renders all written evidence suspect. According to the author's afterward, every character in the book except for Simonini himself is historical. This includes Simonini's grandfather, known to history only as the author of a virulently anti-Semitic letter to a noted Jesuit theologian. These historical characters include not only Garibaldi and Napoleon II, but Jesuits who write false "revelations" about the Masons, Masons who write false "revelations" about conspiracies hatched in the Vatican, and one man who did both, beginning his career as a writer of false and inflammatory anti-Catholic books but then staging a public conversion to the church (for 75,000 Francs) and writing equally false and inflammatory books against the Masons. There are also anarchist bombers, Russian agents who organize fake anarchist attacks, Prussian spies, French counter-espionage agents, and so on. This history was fascinating to me, and it gave me a reason to keep reading despite my hatred of the tiresome Simonini. (Nobody else in the book is very appealing, either.) Eco also knows the history of the tropes that ended up in the Protocols, showing how they appeared decades earlier in tracts against the Masons; Simonini uses the same speeches over and over again, attributing them to Masons, Jesuits and Jews according to the desires of his clients.

As always with Eco, there are many levels of semiotic gameplaying. The split personalities of Simonini call to mind the author who creates multiple characters and has them interact; there is a constant tension between forgery and fiction, and between what got into our history texts and what secret dealings might lie behind it. I've had enough of this from Eco, frankly. I would have enjoyed a more straightforward history about these characters more than this book. But I don't know any such straightforward book, so if you are interested in these matters you might want to read The Prague Cemetery.

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