Reviewed in this essay:
Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery is a novel about hatred, and about why people love to believe conspiracy theories, which confirm their worst fears about groups they fear or resent. “In some of your essays you’ve written [that]… we live in an age of extraordinary credulity,” CBC Radio’s Michael Enright reflected in a recent interview with Umberto Eco at the Toronto Reference Library’s packed Appel salon. But, lovers of Dan Brown, reconsider! Eco’s novel shows not only how ridiculous conspiracies theories are, but, tragically, how they feed hatred and lead directly onto the road towards Auschwitz.
The Prague Cemetery opens with an anonymous passerby, the unnamed Narrator, who enters a bric-à-brac seller’s shop in a seedy Parisian neighbourhood in 1897. This third person Narrator peers over the shoulder of an elderly man in a dressing gown, writing feverishly in a journal. We soon learn that this man is “Captain” Simone Simonini, a career forger and a fraudster. He has woken one day to find a mysterious passageway from his apartment to a corridor filled with wigs, costumes, and make-up brushes, leading to a priest’s home. A bundle of letters reveals to him that the home belongs to a certain Abbé Dalla Piccola, who, like Simonini, is suffering from a terrible feeling that he has lost his memory and identity.
Following the advice of a visiting Austrian doctor, a Docteur Froïde (“I think that’s how it’s written”, says Simonini, 37), the forger begins to write out the events of his life almost automatically, hoping to uncover the reason for his unsettling doubts about his own identity and the memories of a suppressed, traumatic event. Each day he goes to his diary, he finds that Dalla Piccola has managed to strangely fill in events he thought he had forgotten. Can these two men be one and the same?
The rest of the novel proceeds in flashbacks and flash-forwards, interspersed with Dalla Piccola and the Narrator’s editorializing, which the good people at Houghton Mifflin have wisely set in three different font styles. The novel also includes an appendix titled “Useless Learned Explanations,” which sets out, in chart form, the chronological development of the story as a guide to the reader. Even Eco admits getting confused in the plot as he was writing. One of his translators, working on the English version published simultaneously with the Italian, pointed out to him that, “‘You say in the chapter so-and-so that Simonini goes in the cellar and finds three corpses. But two of them are killed later!’”
Simonini’s recollections begin with perhaps the most shocking anti-Semitic passage published in any Western novel since the first half of the twentieth century. It soon becomes readily apparent that Simonini also hates Masons, Jesuits, the French, Germans, Italians, Piedmontese, women— in short, everything and everyone except exquisite gourmet food and money to buy that food. But above all he hates the Jews, a hatred born from a young woman in the Jewish ghetto of Turin rejecting his clumsy adolescent attempt at flirtation and his grandfather’s warnings to him as a little boy that if he was not good, the Jew Mordecai would creep up the stairs and get him.
One character in the novel declares, “Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal…You don’t love someone for your whole life… But you can hate someone for your whole life… Hatred warms the heart”. It is this hatred that fuels Simonini throughout the novel and finally gives him his life’s purpose: the creation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which he happily distributes for hefty sums to the secret services of various European states.
Working as a forgery of wills for a notary in Turin, the young Simonini discovers at the novel’s beginning a book of engravings about the abandoned Jewish cemetery in Prague, in which, imitating the style of favourite novelists of his, he sets a conspiracy scene. At first it depicts black-robed Jesuits gathering from all corners of the globe to plot against the creation of a united kingdom of Italy. The forger produces this story for the Piedmontese secret police as a supposed eye-witness report of this worldwide Jesuit conspiracy. It is the same story of the meeting in the Prague cemetery that Simonini will recycle over and over again throughout the novel, substituting whichever group a government wishes to target for the Jesuits, but finally elaborating upon the theme of a Jewish conspiracy.
Over the course of The Prague Cemetery, Eco emphasizes the gullibility of those who believe in conspiracies and the ease with which the “world domination conspiracy” can be applied to any hated group. One character is convinced he has discovered the secret to the world’s problems: “It is English Freemasonry! Can’t you see the connection? Garibaldi a Mason, Mazzini a Mason, Mazzini exiled in London in contact with the English Masons…”, while another believes that the problem lies with the Jews, who “all around us, watching over us, controlling our investments, directing our armies, influencing the Church and governments.” A third character sees a nefarious connection between the two: “First of all, while not all Masons are Jews, all Jews are Masons.”
Up to its lurid conclusion, when Simonini comes to remember the literal and metaphorical climactic event he has suppressed in his memory, the novel too often reads, as Michael Enright put it in his interview with the author, “like a catalogue of evil.” Eco replied that, “[m]anoeuvring, using such dirty material as all the racist cliché[s], I had to keep the reader and myself…far away from the character. So, I had to create the totally unrecognizably negative character.” But there is perhaps a danger in creating a character who is so depraved; it is often
Despite the implied warning that Simonini’s creation of The Protocols will have ultimately devastating consequences, the novel does not provide a strong antithesis to its main character: a message of compassion and understanding as a foil to Simonini’s fear and hatred. One wonders, for instance, if it is really necessary for Eco to illustrate his novel with nineteenth-century engravings from anti-Semitic newspapers depicting hook-nosed men grasping at gold coins. In one scene set in a salon, characters go on anti-Semitic rants for pages, with no dissenting opinion ever appearing. The third-person Narrator’s voice is detached and ironic, and here too is perhaps a lost opportunity to contextualize Simonini’s depravity.
Eco’s novel is an examination of the power of hatred, but it risks at time merely giving that hatred a public voice again.
Umberto Eco in conversation with Michael Enright. Appel Salon, Toronto Reference Library, November 16th 2011.