If you’re looking for a book that describes how simple and wholesome life was a century ago, stay clear of The Prague Cemetery. If you’re looking for a book that shows how much better off we are today now that we’ve vanquished our prejudices, stay away. But if you’re looking for a book that establishes an analog between our current situation and the history of what came before, then this is one of the best books out there.
For a book that is so suffused with every manner of unpleasantness, I’ll have to say that I have the oddest sensation of enjoying The Prague Cemetery. It has a level of historical detail coupled with a devotion to aesthetics that you won’t find outside of a novel by Thomas Pynchon or James Joyce. Imagine an incredibly well-made painting of a disturbing scene, and that’s The Prague Cemetery. Umberto Eco has suddenly become the Caravaggio of literature.
Essentially, The Prague Cemetery takes the anti-Semitism that exists in the contemporary age, then delineates how it came to be so prominent throughout history, particularly the 19th century, when the novel is set, foreshadowing Hitler’s Final Solution. It does so by enlisting Simone Simonini as the central character, a man who’s alternately a devious puppet master and a puppet. Fairly early in his adult life, Simonini comes to be involved in the art of counterfeiting, something he takes up as his trade. In short time, he’s hired out to create false documents that in some way incriminate the Jewish race, and occasionally the Freemasons as well as the Catholics. Simonini becomes an unrepentant racist, constantly sneering at the jews even though he knows none personally. Here is the novel’s most difficult feat: it’s narrated (mostly) from Simonini’s own perspective.
Umberto Eco is playing a very dangerous game here. How can one write from the point of view of a deplorable human being while not letting people believe he’s deplorable himself? Of course, the literary world knows Eco well enough by now to know he’s not a rabid anti-Semite. The opposite is true: he’s among the most brilliant literary men now living. Anthony Burgess is said to have once said of Umberto Eco “No man should know so much”–that coming from a man who was fluent in more than a dozen languages! Eco has written five novels, of which The Name of the Rose is the most famous. He’s also a professor and a modern philosopher, specializing in semiotics (a branch of linguistics interested in signs and symbols). He’s written several books of non-fiction, including some on classic paintings. He’s been described as a post-modern writer, although here, his sources are all decidedly pre-modern, as is much of the style.
I was reminded while reading The Prague Cemetery of Jonathan Swift’s controversial essay A Modest Proposal. The essay is a long tract about how the children of poor people are a drain on society, and to find some use for them, they should be eaten. Most of us can see the satire at work here: Swift is satirizing people’s disdain of the poor, doing so by taking the point of view of a hopeless bourgoise, a view not so dissimilar to Malthus, who warned against charity. Eco exposes the internal contradictions of racism by giving us examples of racism in their most undiluted forms.
Simonini, like Fritz Lang’s Dr. Mabuse, manages to have a hand in many of the most horrible events in 19th century Europe. He leads men to their deaths in the tumult caused from the Paris commune, helps libel Dreyfus, and plays a central role in the creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Along the way, he meets handfuls of prominent historical figures, such as Garibaldi, Alexander Dumas, and Sigmund Freud.
Cynthia Ozick, in her blurb for The Prague Cemetery, warns the novel shouldn’t “fall into the hands of the naive reader.” By that, I believe she means it should not be read by those who take everything on the page literally. If that were to happen, the book might inspire more anti-Semites than it squashes. While reading it, I kept expecting there to be some moment where Eco sticks his head through the pages and winks while explainging “This is all farce, remember.” No such moments happens, but there’s definitely a constant infusion of metafictional devices there to remind the reader this is foolishness, that Simonini is a coward and a fraud, and that anti-Semitism has no factual basis in the modern world.
Along the lines of Cynthia Ozick’s statement, I’d add that this isn’t a book for casual readers. If you read only one book a year, then this isn’t the book you should read this year. This book is best “enjoyed” by readers who have some understanding of literary devices. For instance, you should have some acquaintance with literature’s duplicitous narrator’s before reading The Prague Cemetery, such as Van in Nabokov’s Ada or Ardor (Eco’s book uses a similar split-narration technique), or the unnamed narrator of Henry James‘ The Aspern Papers. Prior to reading The Prague Cemetery, you should also refresh yourself on history, specifically the carbonari years of Italy, the Dreyfus affair and J’accuse, and what The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were.
I hope I haven’t scared people away from reading The Prague Cemetery. It’s an incredibly well-written book. Here’s just a few examples of the crisp prose that runs through the novel (I should also add that it’s translated remarkably well from Italian).
“Prisons are there to ensure that a gentleman can go to a restaurant without coming to any harm.”–page 181
“You can never create danger that has a thousand different faces–danger has to have one face alone, otherwise people become distracted.”–page 218
“The students stopped a bus, politely asked the passengers to get off, unharnessed the horses and overturned the vehicle to use as a barricade, but the professionals weighed in immediately, setting the bus alight. In short, a noisy protest turned into a riot, and from a riot to a hint of revolution.”–page 360
I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if, sooner or later, The Prague Cemtery was received as one of the great novels of this decade, although we’d all have to get over our naivete and squeamishness first.
—-If you’re looking for something else to read, please check out my new book A Rapturous Occasion. I’ll admit, it’s nowhere near as good as The Prague Cemetery, and has nothing really in common with it, but it has its own value. It’s available in paperback ($12.00) and as an ebook ($1.50!). To see it on Amazon, click here.