April 5, 2012 by markstani
Surprise, surprise: Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (pub. Harvill Secker) is a gruelling, disconcerting and often frustrating read, which is only to be expected of the eminent octogenarian philosopher, of which this is his fifth novel.
Longlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, Eco’s reputation certainly preceeds him, to the extent that that this was a book I anticipated with dread, but ‘surprise, surprise’ indeed: for this is a rich, rewarding and worthwhile read.
‘The Prague Cemetery’ is certainly not without fault. At times it allows itself to become mired in over-detail, and its sub-cast of half-crafted and sometimes inconsequential characters is so confusing you begin to wonder whether Eco isn’t deliberately taking liberties with the reader. But its stunning mix of historical revelation and smears of the blackest of humour sustain this book all the way to its engrossing, pulp-fast finale.
Its main narrator, Simone Simonini, is as loathesome and unreliable as they come: he may, in fact, be two people, as he appears to share his dwelling with an abbot, Dalle Piccola, who only appears when Simonini suffers chronic memory lapses.
Simonini (and/or Piccola) is a fantasist, a glutton and a murderer, sustained by his pathological hatred of just about everyone – the book starts with an uproarious character assassination of various nationalities. Of the French he writes:
As soon as I became French (and I was already half-French through my mother) I realised that my new compatriots were lazy, swindling, resentful, jealous, proud beyond all measure, to the point of thinking that anyone who is not French is a savage, and incapable of accepting criticism. But I have also understood that to induce a Frenchman to recognise a flaw in his own breed is enough to speak ill of another, like saying, “We Poles have such-and-such a defect,” and, since they do not want to be second to anyone, even in wrong, they react with, “Oh no, here in France we are worse,” and they start running down the French until they realise they’ve been caught out.
But it is for the Masons, the Jesuits and the Jews that Simonini reserves his full rancour: cleverly and crucially, this rancour is so preposterous that it has the effect of lancing the hatred, thus diminishing its seriousness and turning the mockery back onto its protagonist.
Through the dying years of the nineteenth century, Simoncini plots a tumultuous path, from Turin, where Garibaldi is continuing his offensive against the Bourbons, to a Paris so unseemly that hotel guests are ordered to leave their keys in the outside of their doors so police will not have to waste time on their frequent raids, and whose restaurants salvage rotting meat from bins – ‘dysentery guaranteed, price affordable’. It is a path scattered with bomb plots, blackmail and intrigue; with double and triple-crossing; with filth and fine food.
All the time Simoncini is ingeniously embellishing his reputation as a master forger, culminating in his work, in conjunction with Russian conspirators, on a document entitled ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, which is intended to unite nations against the (supposed) Jewish plot for world domination. Chillingly and prophetically, Simoncini anticipates a reaction which will one day propel governments to seek to purge Jews from public life.
The most shocking aspect of this story is that it is almost entirely true. Only Simoncini and a number of minor characters are false: the plot and the Protocols indeed exist, and have been used by many to justify their insidious actions over the best part of a century, not least Hitler, who writes in ‘Mein Kampf’: ‘How much the whole existence of this people is based on a permanent falsehood is apparent in the famous Protocols of the Elders of Zion.’
‘The Prague Cemetery’, then, serves as a truly shocking example of the ease with which clandestine groups can sway public opinion by the use of intricately crafted falsehoods, and how death and misery can be heaped upon whole peoples by the stroke of a pen.
It is this truth that gives ‘The Prague Cemetery’ an extra dimension and makes it easier to forgive its obvious flaws. Seamlessly blending fact and fiction, Eco has fashioned a book which rewards persistence, and which is a worthy contender for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.