I like to try to pretend I’m not a literature snob. I like to try to pretend that all I care about in a book is a good story, that genres are meaningless, and that authors who are experimental or who go to great lengths to show off their vast intellects are, generally, more trouble than they are worth. I like peeling back the layers of hype and praise piled upon popular books and to get at the soft nougat of story at the centre and judge it based on the quality of that alone.
Except all that pretending not to be pretentious falls apart the moment I have to talk about Umberto Eco.
I can’t quite call him my favourite author, because that is an absolute I don’t feel comfortable using. How does one necessarily compare and rank two authors whose style and range are completely different? No, Eco is not my all-time favourite, but he is unquestionably a writer of the highest calibre, a literary juggernaut with all the pretentious baggage such a label implies. Whenever I read something by Umberto Eco, I am always struck by how incredibly smart he is. His books are practically saturated with knowledge and intellect in such a way that I am immediately confronted with how little I know—and I love that feeling. More importantly, Eco doesn’t make me feel stupid as a result of this ignorance. Instead, his books display an evident love for knowledge, a joy for life and literature—a feeling so close to what I feel when I read, that it’s probably not a surprise I would feel so at home with these books.
For my fourth annual Eco read I chose The Prague Cemetery purely because it was published in English this year. I feel a little more connected by reading a book that is so recent, and it definitely affected how I interpreted the story. The Prague Cemetery seems, almost from the beginning, like it is more accessible than some of Eco’s other novels. It certainly isn’t as lengthy or as dense as The Name of the Rose or Foucault’s Pendulum. Yet there is a dark and very difficult aspect to The Prague Cemetery that almost made me hesitate with it.
This book is venomous. It opens with a misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic rant by the main character, Captain Simonini. Simonini, an expatriate Italian living in France as a forger and sometime-espionage expert begins recounting his childhood in Italy in the form of a diary. We learn the genesis of his hatred for Jews, his first involvement in forgery and espionage, and eventually, how he came to end up in Paris, France. This autobiographical narrative is as fascinating as it is repugnant. Simonini’s anti-Semitism latches onto everything he touches, spreading into his every endeavour like a virulent and pernicious weed. I found several passages difficult to read, because Eco does not cut corners and does not hold back: he creates a main character who is, in no uncertain times, unlikable and unsympathetic. And I still somehow found myself hoping he wouldn’t get killed. (He is really bad at the espionage thing.)
Then we come to chapter 5, in which the narration gets taken up by Abbé Dalla Piccola. And here’s where it gets interesting. Who is Piccola? Is he an alter-ego of Simonini’s? Or is he a person in his own right? Simonini keeps waking with gaps in his memories and reading these notes from Piccola, whose apartment is connected to his by a long, dank corridor filled with makeup and costumes. Yet as Simonini recalls his life story, there are mentions of a Piccola external to him. And so the identities of Simonini and Piccola and their relationship is ambiguous, at least at first. Ultimately Eco resolves it with uncharacteristic clarity. Until then, however, Piccola along with the Narrator complete the novel’s triumvirate of (unreliable) narrative voices. Together, these two manage to balance out the vitriolic Simonini and make the narrative more interesting.
The Prague Cemetery is intimately connected to European history, particularly that of Italy, Germany, and France, in the late nineteenth century. Those of us whose educations are sorely lacking in this area will feel somewhat lost, which is why Wikipedia is such a valuable resource. Reading about the unification of Italy and France under Napoleon III gave me a glimpse into why Eco might be so fascinated by conspiracy theory. Sensationalist rhetoric of authors like Dan Brown aside, conspiracy underpins much of European history, never far away as one reads about the intricate intrigue that brought down kings and queens, priests and pontiffs. And Eco places Simonini right in the middle of it: first embedding him with the Carbonari and Garibaldi’s red shorts, then transplanting him to France on the eve of the Franco-Prussian war.
Simonini’s experience as a forger means that his superiors expected him to produce evidence that would support the agenda of the month. Communists, socialists, or monarchists—it didn’t matter: you name them, and Simonini would fabricate something to implicate them. He goes as far as actually constructing conspiracies of his own in order to expose them to his superiors. Simonini is delightfully devious—much too devious, in fact, for his own good. He invariably incurs the displeasure of his superiors, which is why he found himself in France in the first place.
Ultimately Simonini becomes obsessed with marketing a manuscript. This manuscript finally becomes The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a real fraudulent document. Set in the eponymous and eerie cemetery in Prague, the manuscript purports to disclose the plans of Jewish leaders for world domination. This is Simonini’s masterpiece, a story woven from ideas culled from fiction and non-fiction throughout the past century, created in such a way as to appear legitimate enough for those who might have a use for anti-Semitic propaganda. And though he knows it is his own fabrication, Simonini is utterly convinced of the document’s veracity in spirit. He does not doubt that a Zionist conspiracy for world domination exists and is in motion, and so he feels justified in manufacturing evidence that exposes this “truth”. Eco brilliantly takes us into the mind of a conspiracy theorist and an anti-Semite, exposing the psychology of such a person.
The document that becomes The Protocols is but one example of the larger set of conspiracies that bloom in the shadows of European politics. Through Simonini we see how various groups, from intelligence offices to the Jesuits, make use of conspiracy theories and propaganda to suit their own ends—essentially, Eco weaves conspiracies about conspiracies. And the most successful participants in these political games are those who do not have (or at least do not indulge) their personal enmities toward different groups. Simonini’s passionate hatred of Jews is a liability, because it warps his every action and provides a motivation that could sometimes be political inconvenient. Even as his Russian contacts discuss using the Jews as scapegoats because they happen to be around, Simonini’s French handler initially tells him that they aren’t interested in pursuing anti-Semitic propaganda “for now”. There's a cold-blooded, calculated, ruthless side to all this hate speech that often seems to get lost (at least in my opinion) when viewed through the lens of the world after the Second World War. For some of these people, hating Jews wasn’t personal; it was just part of the job, and only when expedient.
Although it ends about thirty years prior to the rise of the Nazis, The Prague Cemetery foreshadows the rising wave of anti-Semitism in Europe. World War II is rather like a singularity, in that sometimes it is difficult to look at the history leading up to it and not be influenced by what came after. We concentrated so much on anti-Semitism during and after World War II that we never really discussed how it was already a regular feature in Europe by the time Hitler came on the scene. So I appreciate being reminded of this fact and seeing a depiction of anti-Semitic attitudes prior to the Holocaust. The Prague Cemetery offers an interesting historical perspective in addition to all its fascinating fixations with conspiracy and religion.
Finally, we have the mystery surrounding Simonini himself. Who is he, and how is he related to the Abbé Dalla Piccola? The Prague Cemetery reminded me of The Island of the Day Before. Both feature a character who might be imaginary; in both, the narrative is the reconstruction by an unnamed Narrator of papers written by the main character. And there are echoes of Eco’s other works as well, his recurring themes running strongly throughout this book. For all that is recognizably Eco, however, The Prague Cemetery remains fresh and original.
Eco’s books are difficult. There’s no question about that. I mean, he’s a semiotician, so he is fascinated by symbols and meaning, and that’s obvious from the way his works experiment with the nature of storytelling and of fiction itself. In his postscript to The Name of the Rose he talks about how the first hundred pages were designed to “construct the reader” he needed for the rest of the novel—and yeah, that’s a little condescending. So I can see why people would be unwilling to invest the mental effort needed to digest Eco’s books, and I don’t blame them. But you don’t know what you might be missing until you try. So at the risk of destroying my illusions that I am anything other than a literature snob, I have to extol Umberto Eco as a writer. Because, for me, the feeling I get reading an Eco book is as close to the feeling I imagine I should have reading any book. I don’t know if that makes any sense … there’s just something about the way Eco writes that makes me hyper-aware of the act of reading yet does not detract from my enjoyment of the text itself. Eco’s books embody the pleasure that should be implicit in the act of reading, and I can think of no higher praise to give a writer.