The Prague Cemetery

By Umberto Eco

Throughout his long and prolific career as both a writer of popular historical novels and a professional academic Umberto Eco has been fascinated with the subject of literary fakes and forgeries. A notorious modern example of the genre is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a text first published in Russian in 1903 which purports to be the minutes taken from a meeting of Jewish leaders planning global domination. It’s a work that fascinates Eco, and in The Prague Cemetery (a Jewish cemetery in Prague is the supposed setting of the Protocols) he gives it his most extended and imaginative treatment yet.

In Eco’s overly complex and sensational plot the Protocols are the brainchild of one Simone Simonini, an Italian (well, Piedmontese) master fraudster, bigot, serial killer, and gourmand who manages to get himself mixed up, behind the scenes, in many of nineteenth-century Europe’s greatest hits. He hangs out with Garibaldi and his Thousand during the Risorgimento, lives through the days of the Paris Commune, and has an active hand in the Dreyfus Affair.

The novel opens in 1897, with Simonini established behind the front of a Paris junk shop working as a freelancer for various European secret services and even more secret societies. A lot of the book thus takes the form of flashbacks, somewhat awkwardly presented in diary form. Complicating things further, Simonini has just discovered that he has an alter ego or split personality living in the apartment next door. Narrative duties are thus shared between an unnamed Narrator, Simonini, and the doppelganger. Quelle histoire! the Narrator is given to exclaim, all this paperwork “might be worth using one day as the basis for a novel.”

Simonini, the scholarly Eco explains in an appendix of “Useless Learned Explanations,” is the “only fictitious character in this story,” and he adds that he has attempted to make him “the most cynical and disagreeable” character “in all the history of literature.” This is a large claim, and it doesn’t hold up. Simonini is a villain to be sure, but he’s not up there with greats like Chaucer’s Pardoner, Shakespeare’s Richard III or Faulkner’s Flem Snopes. He’s not so much an evil criminal mastermind as a hack. And while he does a lot of very bad things, we don’t get the sense that he enjoys being wicked. In fact he doesn’t seem to have any motivation at all aside from the odd paycheque. He imagines a “final solution” for exterminating the Jews but also admits he’s never personally known any. For Simonini hate is just a job. He declares “Odi ergo sum. I hate therefore I am,” but the novel’s mouthpiece for a philosophy of hate, one that preaches hatred as a civic virtue and something that “warms the heart,” is the Russian Rachkovsky – the real historical figure most often identified as author of the Protocols.

Truth, in other words, may be quite a bit nastier than fiction. Eco knows this, and comments in his preface that while his ideal readers will be able to appreciate all of the historical spadework and clever cameos (like the budding psychoanalyst “Doctor Froide”), he may also find an audience even among people who “have taken Dan Brown seriously.” That’s a theory I wouldn’t want to put to the test. While sporadically lively, the story here is too cerebral, and ultimately thin and unfocused to appeal to fans of albino assassins and dodgy theology (though they should appreciate all the pictures). Yes, The Prague Cemetery has been a bestseller in Europe, but North Americans are made of weaker stuff.

Still, one hopes some of Brown’s readers will make the effort. It’s fashionable these days to dismiss conspiracies – usually qualified immediately as conspiracy theories – as the mythical products of gullible, ignorant and paranoid minds. If nothing else, Eco shows that it’s possible to write a highbrow Da Vinci Code for those who realize that history can be every bit as devious as he describes it.

Review first published online August 20, 2012.

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