The OF Blog: Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery

Monday, November 07, 2011

Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery

24 marzo 1897 
Provo un certo imbarazzo nel pormi a scrivere, come se mettessi a nudo la mia anima, per ordine – no, perdio! diciamo su suggerimento – di un ebreo tedesco (o austriaco, ma fa lo stesso).  Chi sono?  Forse è più utile interrogarmi sulle mie passioni che sui fatti della mia vita.  Chi amo?  Non mi vengono in mente volti amati.  So che amo la buona cucina:  al solo pronunciare il nome de La Tour d'Argent provo come un fremito per tutto il corpo.  È amore? 
Chi odio?  Gli ebrei, mi verrebbe da dire, ma il fatto che stia cedendo così servilmente alle istigazioni di quel dottore austriaco (o tedesco) dice che non ho nulla contro i maledetti ebrei. 
Degli ebrei so solo ciò che mi ha insegnato il nonno:  – Sono il popolo ateo per eccellenza, mi istruiva.  Partono dal concetto che il bene deve realizzarsi qui, e non oltre la tomba.  Quindi operano solo per la conquista di questo mondo. (p. 11)
March 24, 1897
I feel a certain embarrassment in having to write, as if my soul were laid bare, at the order – no, for God's sake! we say at the suggestion – of a German Jew (or Austrian, it is the same).  Who am I?  Perhaps it is of more use to interrogate me over my passions which are the facts of my life.  Who do I love?  The faces of lovers do not pass through my mind.  I know that I love good cooking:  only pronounce the name of the La Tour d'Argent to prove how a shiver runs throughout my body.  Is it love? 
Who do I hate?  The Jews, I would like to say, but the fact that I have acceded so servilely to the instigations of that Austrian doctor (or German) says to me that I have nothing against those damned Jews. 
Of the Jews I know what my grandfather taught me:  "They are an atheistic people par excellence," he instructed.  They believe that good ought to be completed here and not beyond the tomb.  Therefore they operate only for the conquest of this world. (Translation is my own; rough draft)

Umberto Eco's novels often contain a mixture of the arcane and the profane; in his recent non-fiction book, This is Not the End of the Book, he references in a transcribed conversation with Jean-Claude Carrière his love for books that contain errata.  After dealing with conspiracy theories (Foucault's Pendulum), deliberate distortions of history (Baudolino), lost knowledge (The Name of the Rose), strange orderings of the world (The Island of the Day Before) and the frailties of memory (The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana), perhaps it is no surprise that Eco has turned toward exploring that seamy underbelly of late 19th century European anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.  The Prague Cemetery, like its predecessors, is much more than just a look at the nationalistic mutation of anti-Semitism; it attempts to portray a civilization just prior to its violent collapse that views itself as being enlightened while its actions show otherwise.  For many, to even touch upon such a topic is too outre for their liking; the Vatican's official newspaper strongly condemned the novel upon its Italian release last year for the possibility of persuading readers that the vile anti-Semitic conspiracies contained within might have a kernel of truth to them.  Strange things happen when tales are told from the antagonist's point of view, among them otherwise sensible critics often missing the entire point of the novel.

At first glance, The Prague Cemetery is told through the perspective of its main first-person narrator, Simone Simonini, a master forger whose adventures stretch back from the literary present of 1897 to the immediate aftermath of the 1830 July Revolution in France.  Through his narration, full of malice and deceit, we are presented with a fractured, stained portrait of revolutionary 19th century France and Italy.  We experience Simonini's suspicion and hatred of the Jesuits (who, after the Jews, were often at the nefarious center of most conspiracy theory webs), of the conservative elements in Italy, the struggles within the Risorgimento, and behind it all, his growing and mutating hatred of Jews.  The historical 19th century saw the change in anti-Semitic sentiment from a religious-based antipathy (that the Jews were the accursed Christkillers) to a nationalist view, tempered by the emerging Social Darwinist belief in racial "survival of the fittest," in which the Jews are extra-national and thus in a world beset by a growing arms race between the dominant industrial powers (Britain, Germany, France, Austria, and to an extent Russia) they are seen as a wild card who may tilt the balance of power against any of the powers in whose fatherlands they might dwell.

Looking back on this period through the lens of the Holocaust, we may shake our heads in bafflement that such an odious ideology ever gained ground in a century full of other, more attractive "-isms" such as positivism and rationalism, yet it is that cultural/philosophical hypocrisy that makes this period so fascinating to historians and to erudite individuals such as Eco.  How willingly people self-deceive!  It is this that intrigues Eco and it is through Simonini's rantings and the other, briefer accounts given by a an anonymous third narrator and the letters of a Jesuit priest, Abbé Dalla Piccola, that these hypocrisies are laid bare.

Yet one has to be cautious when reading any of Eco's fiction, as he often seeks to play around with conceptual understandings in order to explore why falsehoods are so attractive to people.  It is rather trite to say that Simonini (and the other narrators) is an "unreliable narrator;" he is very reliable in as far as his viewpoint of the world never changes.  It is the reader who becomes the subject of unreliability here; we are, after all, notoriously inclined to swallow whole what a narrator might imply until the implications of such make us do a 180° and refute what we had earlier held as truth, despite the narrator not changing his stance at all.  This sense of narrative deceit can be unappealing to many readers; my first read of The Prague Cemetery last year left me feeling underwhelmed and a bit discomfited by what I had read and to what I reacted, yet a re-read recently led me to reassess this work.

The Prague Cemetery is not by any stretch of the imagination an "easy" or "accessible" work.  It requires the reader to be inquisitive, to ask questions, and to learn some unsettling facets of 19th century European social, cultural, and political history in order to delve further into the world that culminated with the infamous 1905 publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (as well as understanding the milieu that produced that "Austrian doctor" alluded to in the translated passage above).  For some, this is not an enjoyable task, but for those readers who do know something of these topics and who are willing to sift through the intentional false leads and deceptive commentaries embedded in this novel, The Prague Cemetery may yield surprising results.

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