Welcome back to another book analysis and review of a book so difficult to read it took me far longer than expected.
Eco is not for the faint of heart, this is something I knew ahead of time, since he is a genius with prose. His writing is long and syntactically complex, his subjects expansive and developing at a micro-level. His works are absolutely re-reading material.
Nevertheless, Eco’s writing is a delicious experience for the linguistically-obsessed.
Who are you talking about?
Good question. This is Umberto Eco.
I love this man. You don’t understand. I love him. Look at him.
This sweet old, pot-bellied italian genius makes me so happy I get so excited to see one of his books in a store, what have you. Unfortunately he died in 2016 and it has saddened me to yet again be bereft of a favorite living author.
I’d recommend him to anyone, but I also know he’s very academic, so it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It’s work.
Some quick info on Eco: he was born in 1932 in Alessandria in the Italian region Piedmont (recall that Italy only became a democratic nation in 1946 post-WWII). Despite his father’s wish that he pursue law, Eco pursued medieval philosophy and literature at the University of Turin. After that he was a cultural editor for the state broadcasting station where he met some avant-garde artists.
He wrote a book piggy-backing off of his thesis on Aquinas and boom, we have a fantastic semiotician and writer.
The important note here is that he was born pre-Mussolini AND he lived during that angry meatball’s reign. The man knows fascism, he knows censorship, and he writes extensively on those subjects and how they manifest.
Oh and best of all, he had a personal library of 30,000 books in his Milan apartment and 20,000 in his Rimini vacation home (goals.) He died last year at the age of 84.
He used to teach at Bologna University which is 1088 years old. I once stayed in Bologna in a 1000 year old student-housed monastery. I regret not tracking Eco down just to meet him.
What even is the plot?
Glad you asked.
To put it simply, if I even can, in 19th century europe everything is much as it is and has always been: rife with conspiracies and plots. Behind many of these conspiracies and forged documents and domestic terrorism is Simonini (our main character), an agent of the French and Italian secret services.
We follow Simonini in a very, very complex manner, as he wakes up positively flabbergasted by the fact that he appears to be sharing his apartment with a priest he does not know. He begins to write in his diary, noticing that Abbé Della Piccola—the mysterious priest—responds in kind with the same amnesia.
The narrator clarifies sections for us, since he is reading the diary decades after its actual use.
Very complex, you see?
From Turin to Paris, Simonini uses his grandfather’s teachings on anti-semitism and hatred for Jesuits/freemasons as fuel to incite violence for the government, as he slowly begins to write a document that will change the world for the worse.
His incendiary document is titled the Prague Cemetery. Simonini writes the dramatic piece with borrowed scenery and ideas from older, racist and extremist writings to build an illusion of truth as he creates a scene of rabbis meeting to plan their destruction of the modern world.
As Eco says in his Paris Review Interview that I highly suggest reading, “Simonini is a forger, and understands that in order to tell secret information to a secret service you always have to tell what is already known. Otherwise they will not believe you.”
That’s all well and good, a book about a forger who feeds governments fake information and secretly works in his hateful agenda—very interesting.
I’ll let you in on a secret. The documents in this book, as well the characters, are nearly all real. The Prague Cemetery? The forged anti-semitic document? It’s based on The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Guess who referenced that fabricated anti-semitic piece in his book?
“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. Every week the Frankfurter Zeitung whines that they are based on a forgery: and here lies the best proof that they are genuine…When this book becomes the common heritage of all people, the Jewish peril can then be considered as stamped out.” Hitler, Mein Kampf
Now that’s juicy….and scary
Yep. I audibly gasped at the conclusion of this novel. I couldn’t believe it that in all the despicable events and thoughts I had read, sometimes disgusting enough for me to put the book down in horror, I was reading truth. Eco only created one character: Simonini.
“All the others (except for a few incidental minor characters such as Notaio Rebaudengo and Ninuzzo) actually existed, and said and did what they are described as saying and doing in this novel.” Eco, The Prague Cemetery, “Useless Learned Explanations”
Even the illustrations in the novel are real portraits half of the time or real propaganda. Eco says it creates an “oscillatory function” in which you are shocked to discover that the normal, fiction-like function of a story is suddenly very real.
And of course it’s real. Of course there are all kinds of forged documents fed to governments and the masses to create fear, motivation, anger, what have you. The instances of planned violence in this novel—the bombings, the use of extremist students and groups as pawns to make public arrests or create safety or discontent. Of course it’s real.
You see it everyday. The note at the beginning of The Prague Cemetery says the reader will “look anxiously behind him, switch on all the lights, and suspect that these things could happen again today. In fact, they may be happening in that very moment.”
Nothing is new, is it? Nothing is ever new.
What is the reading like?
It is not easy. Not solely because it’s Eco, since he is quite readable after being a pop culture author from The Name of the Rose, but because our main character is a bigot. He hates women, he hates Jewish people, he hates Jesuits and Freemasons, he even hates French people and he lives in France for many years.
“The German lives in a state of perpetual intestinal embarrassment due to an excess of beer and pork sausages on which he gorges himself.” (Eco, 6.)
“Priests…They are idle and belong to a class as dangerous as thieves and vagrants.” (Eco, 12.)
“I hate women, from what little I know of them.” (Eco, 14.)
And I could not forget his hatred of the Jews.
“My grandfather described those eyes that spy on you, so false as to turn you pale, those unctuous smiles, those hyena lips over bared teeth, those heavy, polluted, brutish looks, those restless creases between nose and lips, wrinkled by hatred, that nose of theirs like the beak of a southern bird…” (Eco, 5.)
Simonini also has an erotic obsession with food, so at the very least we encounter many beautiful descriptions of foreign foods that you’ve likely never heard of. At least the bigot has nice thoughts on restaurant meals.
We must mire through a rather despicable mind, we must go where we never want to go, to the place where angry and motivated people wallow. I can assure you it’s not a breeze, but I do think it’s vitally important.
Like this passage, which is chilling and horrible, which details Simonini’s “contribution” to mass genocide of the Jewish race:
“I wouldn’t have to destroy them myself—I am (as a rule) a man who recoils from physical violence—but I knew how it had to be done, since I lived through the days of the Commune. Take gangs of men who are well trained and indoctrinated, and drag anyone you meet with a hooked nosed and curly hair straight up against the wall. You’d end up losing a few Christians but, in the words of the bishop who had to attack Béziers when it was occupied by the Cathars, it is better to be prudent and kill the lot. God will recognize his own.
As it is written in their Protocols, the end justifies the means.” (Eco, 426.)
First: Simonini has murdered multiple times by this point in the book, ironically, for a man who “recoils from physical violence.”
Second: Reading this makes me uneasy and queasy.
Ultimately, this novel on 19th century conspiracies, written in 2011, is uncannily relevant. I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking understanding in the realm of false information or the dissemination of mainstream information.
Of course after Charlottesville and in this tumultuous time, some wonder how things got suddenly bad and, of course, any oppressed member of society will tell you it did not suddenly become tumultuous. Indeed, the soup of hatred has been simmering and boiling over and simmering again for centuries.
The violence of white men is old. It’s in Colombine, in Timothy McVeigh at Oklahoma City, in the extremism of masculinity, in colonization, and in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I don’t have time to type it all out. But if you need a way to understand the age of conspiracy, of forgery, and of the libel of the “other”, perhaps begin with The Prague Cemetery.
I should say Eco has a sister collection of essays titled Inventing the Enemy. I will do my best to get to it as soon as possible.
Bisous à tout le monde et tout qui souffre,
Eco, Umberto. The Prague Cemetery. New York, Mariner Books, 2010.
“Umberto Eco.” Umberto Eco Biography, www.umbertoeco.com/en/umberto-eco-biography.html. Accessed 17 Aug. 2017.