Monday, January 16, 2012
We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
Umberto Eco’s latest bestseller The Prague Cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga) crept through its New Zealand release in October of last year with very little reaction from our press. I heard it reviewed on National Radio and saw some reprints of overseas reviews, but that was about it. As I noted some weeks back on this blog, when I reviewed Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, longer books are sometimes not taken up for review in our press, as reviewers apparently fear they might actually have to read them. Much easier to resort to such stratagems as celebrity interviews with the author, or recycled overseas reviews.
Anyway here, a little belatedly, is my own mixed report on the novel, the 430 pages of which I read easily enough, as it is mainly written in thriller-style, filled with lurid and sensational details.
Eco is still best known for the tricky literary games of The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum. He has a huge readership because he tells far-fetched and action-filled yarns. But he is also the darling of post-modernists as his novels always self-consciously and ironically draw attention to their own form. In this matter he has inspired a large number of imitators. The Prague Cemetery mainly takes the form of a diary supposedly written by one (or possibly two) people in 1897. But there is also an omniscient Narrator who pumps out such sentences as: “The papers your Narrator is browsing are full of surprises, and might perhaps be worth using one day as the basis for a novel.” Nudge-nudge wink-wink, and here we are in the land of twee post-modern self-referencing.
Anyway, the 1897 diary is being kept by one Simone Simonini, an Italian spy, forger and fabulist who has had a hand in some of the most notorious literary productions of the 19th century.
Simonini had a conservative Catholic monarchist grandfather who constantly warned him against the conspiracies of Freemasons, who were trying to overthrow the rightful order of church and throne. Conversely, Simonini had a republican Italian father who constantly warned him against conspiracies by Jesuits who were trying to build up the power of the church. And of course on all sides there were conspiracy theories about Jews.
So were Freemasons or Jesuits or Jews or combinations of all three plotting to overthrow all that was good and decent? Simonini’s own reading (especially of conspiracy-filled novels by Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Sue) soon showed him that all conspiracy theories were alike. They all required a grand narrative of something demonic and world-encompassing, preferably involving secret oaths taken in melodramatic settings and grand schemes to pervert and upset the existing order.
Skilled at devising false documents, Simonini sells himself to whomsoever will pay him, but this usually means government agents looking to find excuses for their government’s shortcomings or looking to divert popular unrest towards a scapegoat. It is through the consciousness of the perverse opportunist Simonini that we see some of key events of the 19th century. The crushing of the Roman Republic. Garibaldi’s expedition to Sicily and Naples and the unification of Italy. Napoleon III’s dictatorial rule and the Franco-Prussian war.
Behind all of these matters, dark, sinister and hidden forces are supposedly at work, be they Freemasons, Jesuits or Jews. At least that is the way these events are recorded by Simonini and by rumour, gossip, government spies, pamphleteers, and writers of newspaper serials. One paradox is that while Simonini is fully aware that he is peddling lies, he himself actually believes those lies. We also get the point that the popular press and mass literacy in the nineteenth century sometimes had the same effect as the new technologies of our own age. The dissemination of conspiracy theories and crank extremism was as rife as it is in the age of the internet, chat-groups, Facebook, Twitter etc.
Simonini’s main obsessions prove to be anti-Jewish. The novel moves into an account of the large anti-Semitic lobby in France and the Dreyfus Affair. By mid-point, Simonini is drawing on other people’s fables to make up a lie about a demonic group of rabbis meeting together in Prague’s Jewish cemetery to plot world domination. This in turn feeds into the anti-Semitic novel Biarritz by the German Hermann Goedsch and it is finally turned (by the Tsarist secret police) into the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The final page of this book (after the novel itself really ends) reminds us how much Hitler endorsed this fraudulent document.
The ultimate outcome of Simonini’s fraud, says The Prague Cemetery, was genocide. This is what happened when somebody with power actually believed nineteenth-century conspiracy theorists.
What is Eco doing writing this novel? On one level, the novel is simply historical reconstruction. Many mad and destructive conspiracy theories were believed by a mass audience in the nineteenth century, and new nation states had secret services which didn’t hesitate to forge documents to discredit their enemies. As Eco correctly notes, the taste for tales of master-criminals conspiring at world domination was fed in the mass-circulation novels of Dumas (anti-Freemason) and Eugene Sue (anti-Jesuit). The great majority of characters named in the novel actually existed.
But I have a major objection to this novel.
Simonini himself is a fictitious character and all his personal dealings are fictitious. His diary is sometimes taken over by a priest called Dalla Piccola, who seems to be (and indeed proves to be) a projection of his own unbalanced mind. Simonini tells us that he is partly inspired to write his diary as an act of purgation and catharsis, following the techniques of an Austrian Jewish doctor whom he calls “Froide”. (Gosh! Sigmund Freud! Weren’t we readers clever to pick up the reference!). We know that, no matter how sane he sometimes appears to be, Simonini is in fact an hysteric and neurotic trying to self-administer a psychological cure. And of course his conspiracy theories are the product of a diseased mind.
So this is a tale in the tradition of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. It is classic “unreliable narrator” stuff. I am forcefully reminded of Michael Moorcock’s Pyat tetralogy of novels, written in the 1980s, and beginning with Byzantium Endures and The Laughter of Carthage. They are a cockeyed history of the 20th century as written by an obsessive Russian anti-Semite. As sophisticated readers, we are meant to realize how wrong his world view is. And that is how it works in The Prague Cemetery. We are meant to see that Simonini’s theories are madness and hence to see him as a symbol of the madness of his age.
But I am not happy with this.
Apart from the character of Simonini himself, Eco gives us an historically-accurate account of the fabrication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. So why insert a fictitious character into this sequence of events? And why give him such a central role? Doesn’t it mean that Eco himself is simply adding a layer of mystification to something that can and should be elucidated? Indeed, isn’t Eco presenting us with exactly the sort of demonic super villain who figured in so much of the conspiracy literature that the novel supposedly exposes?
Okay. I can see this is a great post-modernist joke, self-referencing and playing with the nature of text itself. Part of the joke is the way 19th century prints and images (many from Eco’s personal collection) are scattered through the text, illustrating the story. All are genuine 19th century images, but they have been wrenched out of their original contexts and made to serve fictional purposes. In other words, they are “genuine fakes”, like this fictitious conspiracy story about people who believed in fictitious conspiracy stories. I am supposed to sit back and admire Eco’s skill in fitting one Russian doll of deception inside another.
But – silly old literal-minded historian me – I find I can’t do this. In end The Prague Cemetery itself is like a bad Sue or Dumas melodrama, and it feeds exactly those tastes that it is ostensibly criticising. When we get pages of pornography (Eco’s account of a Black Mass of Satanists) we have part of the explanation for Eco’s best-seller-dom. I doubt if The Prague Cemetery will re-fire the old hatreds that it chronicles. But, while it might be more intellectual than drek like The Da Vinci Code, there is always the possibility that some idiots, like Dan Brown’s devotees, will take it as unadulterated history.
Important footnote – I read and came to my own conclusions about The Prague Cemetery before I went on a search to see what other (overseas) reviewers had to say about it. I find myself in almost complete agreement with Peter Conrad’s review in the Observer (27 November 2011) and Theo Tait’s in the Guardian (4 November 2011). They can be found on-line. Both draw parallels with Dan Brown’s trash and both point out the element of smug game-playing in Eco’s approach. Great minds think alike, etc.