16 January, 2012Issue 18.1FictionLiterature

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A Conspiracy of Texts

Reinier van Straten

BritishUmberto Eco
The Prague Cemetery
Harvill Secker, 2011
448 Pages
ISBN 978-1846554919


The historical breadth and depth of Umberto Eco’s latest novel, The Prague Cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga), is nothing short of dizzying. Following the exploits of its protagonist, Simone Simonini, and his Doppelgänger, the Abbé Dalla Piccola, the novel whistles through Garibaldi’s and his Redshirts’ role in the unification of Italy in 1861 to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and the short-lived, bloody Paris Commune that ensued. Simonini, purportedly the novel’s only fictional character, has less talent as a secret agent than as a forger of legal deeds. He creates “new copies of genuine documents that have been lost or, by simple oversight, have never been produced, and that could and should have been produced.” Eco introduces Simonini’s singular skill as the literary “missing link” in the novel’s structuring subject matter, the evolution of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic hoax from the turn of the last century about Jewish world conquest. Even today, the myth has not been put entirely to rest.

Obsessed with the seemingly irresistible seduction of conspiracies and lies over and above truth, of arcane knowledge behind the veil of reality, the rich (and at times indulgent) material of The Prague Cemetery is in perennial danger of merely propagating the myth, a point made by Riccardo Di Segni, currently the Chief Rabbi of Rome. The novel, which the dust jacket vaunts as an “inspired twisting of history and fiction”, has been criticised for failing on both these counts. On the one hand, the novel offers no real plot in the conventional sense, just a dense collection of carefully collated historical facts held together by the conjecture of a narrative thread. On the other, there are those who, echoing Adorno’s oft-cited assertion that “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric”, consider the literary form inappropriate for dealing with such a serious topic. However, between the infantilised perspective on the Holocaust of John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (2006) and the solemn overview of Saul Friedländer’s colossal historical tomes, Eco offers a new and intriguing postmodern insight into a complex phenomenon that forces the reader to confront questions of literary and historical truth, individuality and intertextuality.

To be fair to Eco’s critics, the novel certainly seems to be less entertaining than his previous works, a phenomenon that arises out of a subtle change of approach. Speaking recently to the Guardian about his previous career, Eco related that his own doctorate had the structure of a “whodunnit” that lead the reader through a series of logical deductions before revealing its conclusion. Held together by the conundrums of medieval hermeneutics, Eco’s first novel, The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa, 1980), a murder mystery in a monastery, adopted the same formula. Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault, 1988), conversely, in which three publishers concoct an occult conspiracy, already examines mystery ab initio. The themes of his previous novels, the Knights Templar and the Kabbalah, are not as heavy as the anti-Semitism that is the focus of his latest novel. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Russia in 1905, claimed to be the minutes of a meeting of the world’s foremost Jewish leaders about their plans for global domination, a meeting supposedly held at the cemetery in Prague. In 1921, the Times of London exposed the document as fraudulent by identifying the satirist, Maurice Joly, as a literary influence. Nevertheless, the Protocols were widely accepted as true and eventually cited in the first volume of Hitler’s Landsberg tirade, Mein Kampf (1925). In response, Eco could easily have written something more serious than a novel. Currently professor of semiotics at the University of Bologna, Eco is the author of innumerable essays and a public intellectual who readily gives interviews. Indeed, Eco has openly spoken out against anti-Semitism. Another earnest treatment of the topic, however, would not have been as effective in grappling with such an entrenched conspiracy as a novel with its own dubious claims to historical truth. The Prague Cemetery succeeds in dealing with its counterpart as another intertext, a repository of its composite writings and influences.

Like many self-referential postmodern novels, The Prague Cemetery continually falls apart at the seams. This deconstructive sensation is evoked most satisfyingly in the novel by the constantly fragmented narrative perspective. As a first instance, the novel’s “Narrator” attempts to add a veneer of historicity yet, despite remaining unnamed and referring to himself exclusively in the third person, he is evidently in possession of an identifying psychological mindset. At one point the narrator admits to summarising certain items of information “so as not to unduly bore the Reader”. Then, in an appendix titled “Useless Learned Explanations”, which in fact gives an historical timeline on which the novel is based, the narrator confesses to creating “a few incidental minor characters”. He continues, “for narrative economy I have made a single (invented) character say and do what was in fact said and done by two (historically real) characters”. As a second instance, the novel’s protagonist suffers from a split personality: Simonini and Dalla Piccola gradually deduce through their correspondence with one another that they must in fact be the same person. Moreover, as an individual, Simonini is always at the whim of greater powers: he is a master forger but never an executor of his own will; he may be employed by the secret services of three states—the Piedmontese, the French, and the Russian—but is never an agent. Even Simonini’s hatred of Jews cannot be called his own. “I began to regret that I had never wanted to meet a Jew in my life”, he recalls at one point. Instead, Simonini is simply a vessel for the prejudices of his bigoted grandfather, and by extension, of the general public. The lies of Simonini’s own creation are lumbering. To his dismay, Simonini’s go-between from the French secret police compliments him on the purchase of a finely crafted swordstick, a concealed weapon with which he had imagined duping would-be assailants. “With a pommel of that kind, it couldn’t be anything else”, grins the liaison. At the same time, these lies, despite their obviousness, are readily believed, whether for political expediency or the mystique of hidden truths. Simonini’s intermediaries from his various intelligence services are unable to link him with Dalla Piccola, and Simonini need only don a false beard to become a different person altogether. Nevertheless, unlike Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (Les Bienveillantes, 2006), which lays bare the thought processes of an executioner from the SS, the novel encourages the reader not to identify with its despicable yet forever evaporating protagonist, who goes by the motto odi ergo sum (“I hate therefore I am”), but to focus on the text itself.

Simonini, bereft of his own individuality, unites the style and structure of the Protocols with that of the novel that created him. Reworking a scene from Alexandre Dumas’s novel Joseph Balsamo (1846) that describes a Masonic meeting on Mont-Tonnerre, Simonini writes in the style of Eugène Sue’s conspiratorial novels. Simonini then makes alterations to his original draft following encounters with the aforementioned Joly and Hermann Goedsche, whose real-life chain of plagiarisms going all the way back to Dumas form the basis of the Protocols. Finally, Simonini transfers the forged document to the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police. In this way, the protagonist of The Prague Cemetery spins the same web over the Freemasons, the Jesuits, and finally the Jews. The reader is left to question how this work of fiction can claim more truth than the forgery it depicts, or more relevantly, as one reviewer laments in the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, whether there is anything that can be done if its lies are so compelling. In stark contrast to the Protocols, the novel advertises itself as a fabrication. Rather than offer the reader a key to unlock its mystery, the radical intertextuality of The Prague Cemetery forces the reader to confront his or her own interaction with the text. For this reason, it is easy to forgive the author for repeatedly forcing the reader to consult reference works and external sources in order to make sense of the novel’s immense detail. With due deference to Eco’s critics, this is a scholarly pleasure in itself. The novel weaves into its plot a generation’s worth of historical figures and turning-points, including the Dreyfus Affair and Sigmund Freud as “Doctor Fro√Øde”, among others. Add to this the difficulty the translator, Richard Dixon, must have faced when confronted with this international, if not supranational, tale: in addition to the original Italian, the novel compiles seemingly endless lists of French dishes, which, like many of the novel’s enigmas, have been wisely left untranslated.

As a piece of historical storytelling, The Prague Cemetery is delicately balanced between elitism and accessibility. The novel offers an incisive insight into a captivating yet often overlooked period of European history. It does so in a way that only a narrative can bring to life, yet does not shy away from challenging the reader. It will frustrate many readers expecting either an historical or literary account, but will reward those with intellectual curiosity. At times, the thrill of the mystery seems to take a backseat to the gravity of its subject matter, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the birth of modern anti-Semitism. However, as a fictional text, Eco’s postmodern novel places a heavy burden on the reader by pointing out his or her susceptibility to the textual lie, while simultaneously having faith that the reader will acquire the tools to resist the temptation of clandestine knowledge and see through its fallacious promises.

Reinier van Straten is reading for a DPhil in Modern Languages at Magdalen College, Oxford.