07 August 2013

The Prague Cemetery (Umberto Eco)

Umberto Eco's latest novel, The Prague Cemetery, left me with somewhat muddled reactions, which I'll try to talk out here. It's told as a diary in dialogue--that is, a certain Piedmontese Captain Simonini, gourmand and forger, takes the advice of a "Doctor Froïde" he met once and begins to reconstruct the events of his life, in an attempt to regain recent memories he seems to have lost. Soon, he finds interpolations from a cleric, Abbé Dalla Piccola, who may or may not be himself in disguise. The two weave a tale of far-reaching conspiracy, including their involvement with Garibaldi, the Paris Commune, and the Dreyfus Affair, and hatred: of Freemasons, of Jesuits, of women, Russians, Germans, French, Italians, and above all, the Jews. Having gathered calumnies from various European sources for decades, Simonini eventually authors the all-too-influential hoax document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, used as justification for anti-Semitic violence to this day (in fact, I'm a little grossed out that this page will show up somewhere when you Google it. Unfortunately, I'm sure it's far down on the list).

Simonini is the only entirely fictional character in the novel, who has a great talent for forgery and creating "original documents" by developing and changing old conspiracies to fit what his audience wants to hear (theorizing that there is really only one conspiracy theory, requiring only tweaking to work for any hated group or scenario). By doing this, he becomes the common thread throughout much of the great paranoias of nineteenth-century Europe.

The thing is, I'm not sure how much the book works as a novel. The mystery of whether Simonini and Dalla Piccola are the same person, and what trauma led to their splitting, pales in interest beside the complex web of bigotry and fear and intrigue that runs throughout--but it's the non-fiction that's most compelling (and horrific). Which leads to the question: why not write it is as non-fiction? Eco would have had to sacrifice some narrative drive, of course, but wouldn't have lost the story. And in a way, attributing these wide-ranging machinations to the work of a single man lessens their impact; though he's certainly aided and abetted by various authors, journalists, and secret police, Simonini is ultimately responsible for the Protocols, rather than their being a collaborative result of centuries of anti-Jewish sentiment. It is, I think, a great lie that we've been told, that Hitler was an anomaly, rather than the culmination of a European tradition of hate and persecution. He just perfected the means.

Thus: while I didn't find Prague Cemetery entirely satisfying, I'm still glad I read it, unsettling as it was. But if you just want a great conspiracy thriller, you should just (re)read Foucault's Pendulum.

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