Umberto Eco’s new book is a decidedly unpleasant read. That’s not to say it’s a bad book; an unpleasant read can still be interesting and even entertaining. The Prague Cemetery is both of these things, just not quite often enough to suit me.
The source of the novel’s vileness is its main character, Simone Simonini, a forger with absolutely no redeeming characteristics. He makes his living spreading hate against whoever the enemy du jour happens to be. In 19th-century Paris, that means the Jews, the Jesuits, the Masons, and any other convenient scapegoat who comes along. His great work, which he tinkers with throughout the novel, is a made-up account of a cabal of rabbis who meet in a cemetery in Prague to plot the overthrow of the world. This document takes inspiration from several popular novels and, in turn, inspires still others, eventually becoming one of the most influential anti-Semitic documents in modern history.
Eco has stated that all of the characters in this book, aside from Simonini, are actual historical figures, although many (perhaps even most) will not be familiar to the general reader. Eco mines obscure (to me) bits of 19th-century European history and offers up such people as Léo Taxil, Diana Vaughan, and Maurice Joly. From this novel, one would get the impression that Europe at the time was chock-a-block with fraudsters cooking up conspiracies to gain money or power. The history is fascinating, even if the details are overwhelming.
Equally fascinating are the ideas that fuel Eco’s depiction of hate literature. The literature is in many cases written not to put down a particular group but to raise up another. If an entire race gets obliterated in the midst of that pursuit, so be it. A Russian who avails himself of Simonini’s services requests a piece of anti-Semitic literature not because he hates Jews in particular, but because Jews are a convenient object of hate to distract people from rebelling against the tsar. “If I were living in Turkey, I would use the Armenians,” he quips. The important thing is that people have someone else to blame for their troubles. How like much of today’s political discourse this is. Placing blame takes precedence over finding solutions.
In his work, Simonini is not at all interested in truth (although he is an anti-Semite through and through). He deliberately uses Alexandre Dumas’s Joseph Balsamo as inspiration for his confabulations, tweaking the setting and characters to fit his or his clients’ purposes. Almost everyone involved in the creation and dissemination of these documents knows from the get-go that they are false. Even when they try to pretend that the documents have a grain of truth in them, they’ll request revisions and make changes to better suit their ends. Again, just like much modern-day propaganda.
Eco does a wonderful job of showing how these kinds of vile myths develop, and he does so in such a way that we can easily see the parallels to our time. However, the book as a whole is not a success. Once Eco develops these ideas, they don’t go anywhere, and the book becomes monotonous. It’s just one forgery after another, the only difference being the circumstances and the target. Simonini’s great work, which he calls the Protocols, are there in the background, with bits and pieces being shared and changed along the way, but there’s not much sense of narrative momentum. Eco’s research is impressive, but piling all these conspiracies together doesn’t necessarily make for a good story.
What narrative tension there is dwells in Simonini’s own psychological makeup. When the book begins, some years after the main events of the story, Simonini is writing a journal at the suggestion of a certain Austrian psychiatrist. Simonini’s hope is that he can get to the bottom of a series of episodes of lost time he’s been experiencing. Along with the missing days, Simonini has found a priest’s cassock and an apartment connected to his own by a secret passageway. Soon, he starts to find entries in his journal by an Abbé Dalla Piccola who is suffering similar lapses of memory. The journal entries by these two men, supplemented by a third-person account by an unnamed narrator, make up the narrative, To the reader, it’s obvious what’s going on, and all three narrators speculate about it, but the truth is never made explicit until the end of the book.
I have mixed feelings about this approach. On the one hand, Eco does not take the easy way out and create a clear Jekyll and Hyde tension. Neither Simonini or Piccola is a likable man. But as with the conspiracy theory plot, there’s insufficient narrative momentum. What ought to look like a descent into madness becomes just a series of memory lapses. The conceit is intriguing at the start, but it doesn’t go anywhere until the final chapters of the book.
Although filled with compelling ideas, The Prague Cemetery ultimately falls down under its own weight. For me, the detailed history and the unconventional structure proved to be too much, and the story became too much of a slog. A disappointment.