I’m probably not the first person to think so, but The Prague Cemetery is a bit like a Thinking Person’s Da Vinci Code – on steroids. (I bet you thought that a lover of literary fiction like me would never have read dross like TDVC but indeed I have. It was recommended to me by someone whose opinion about books I
trust trusted. Not one of my online friends, I hasten to add.)
As it happens, dreaming up conspiracy theories is a minor amusement of mine. I find it livens up watching what passes for the TV news; and goodness knows, the world is rich in opportunities these days. But Umberto Eco prefers to dabble in times past, setting that fabulously arcane Name of the Rose back in the Middle Ages, while The Prague Cemetery - shortlisted for this year’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize – is set in the late 19th century. This precludes Moon Landing hoaxes, WikiLeaks and other favourites emanating from America, but it allows the author to mine the Dreyfus Affair and the Romanovs, not to mention Satanic rites, Freemasonry, the Knights Templar and the antiSemitic hoax ‘the Protocols of the Elders of Zion’.
I’m not going to pretend that I understood The Prague Cemetery in its entirety. The whole point about arcane mysteries is that the reader is not supposed to. You are meant to be pleasurably mystified, and yes indeed I was. The only way to read books such as these, I’ve found, is to surrender to them, to read on and hope for the best. Trust the author’s cunning, and it will all make some kind of sense eventually.
The Narrator (capitalised, because he is a character in the novel) says at the beginning of the book that he’ll help out occasionally, but he’s having a laugh. Hilariously, he provides a little chart at the back of the book in a section called ‘Useless Learned Explanations’. The chart is purportedly to clarify the story and the plot ‘for the benefit of the overly meticulous reader, or one who is not so quick on the uptake’…
The story lures the reader into the grubby backstreets of 19th century Paris á la Victor Hugo where in a maze of derelict stairs, cluttered rooms and filthy passageways lurks a very nasty old Italian called Simone Simonini. The name is ironic: both Simone and ‘Little Simon’ mean ‘listening’ and derive from the Hebrew, meaning ‘he who hears the word of God’. Ostensibly a dealer in ‘second-hand’ goods, Simonini is actually complicit in almost every man-made calamity to befall Europe that you can think of. Yes, it is his mission-in-life to winkle out conspiracies of one sort or another, and to counter them with his own. In his armoury of weapons he has a very cunning and suspicious mind and the foulest set of prejudices you can imagine. He despises the French, the Germans, the British, and Sicilians. He hates Communists, the Jesuits, the Masons and the Jews. (I probably missed a couple). He vents these hatreds in his diaries where an unrelenting torrent of anti-Catholic, antiSemitic, and anti-Masonic diatribes will make most readers feel very uncomfortable indeed, even when they recognise that Eco is satirising extremists.
These paranoid ravings reminded me of other loonies in literature, notably Professor Kien in Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-fé but Simone Simonini has company: an alter-ego called Abbé Dalla Piccola. He writes in the diary too, nagging Simonini about being truthful but having, (to put it mildly), moral failures of his own. And then (usually not helping at all), the Narrator interferes as well, especially to cut Simonini down to size when he has neglected to diarise his failures. What alerts the reader to the source of this confusion is the droll gossip about a certain ‘Doctor Froïde’ who is just starting to unravel the mysteries of the human mind…
So the hapless reader, muddling around in the mad mind/s of these ‘personalities’, then embarks on a strange journey indeed. Simonini is a sociopath with grandiose ideas about his own abilities. Also (mercifully) asexual, he is a man of excess in other ways, signalled by his digressions: he is a gourmet glutton and he greedily journals his memories of dining out in splendid restaurants, detailing every course and glass of wine. He cooks too, lovingly creating fine meals and thoughtfully providing the recipes. (There were a couple that were quite tempting, but somehow, it feels risky to try them)…
For (even if you could be sure that the other diarists were not tampering with the ingredients list) Simonini is not to be trusted. His quest is to tidy up the world (as he knows it, in Italy and France) by despatching as many subjects of his venom as he can. His talent as a forger is discovered early on, and he puts it to good use. Before long, he comes to the attention of an assortment of Machiavellian agencies who engage him to assist with ‘information-gathering’ so that rival powers can be disposed of. His information is, of course, a tissue of lies, and is all the more effective for that. Nobody is actually interested in the truth, and the ease with which public opinion can be massaged is prescient.
Black humour abounds. Inventing a document to incriminate the Jesuits, Simonini mines Dumas’s novel Joseph Balsamo for the plot, bemoans the fact that he can’t credibly weave the Jews into it so as to incriminate them too and patronises the intellect of the intelligence services he works for:
It is better not to fill the heads of government agents with too much information. All they want is clear, simple ideas – black and white, good and bad, and there must only be one villain’… I had to be succinct and to the point, as is fitting for a secret report, since it is well known that police agents are not great readers and can handle no more than two or three pages.’ (p100)
(It is within my adult life that the entry level of education for Australia’s Commonwealth Police was Year 8).
Chastised by Abbé Dalla Piccola for collaborating in the murder of the Carbonari in Piedmont, Simonini uses as argument we have most recently heard used to justify torture:
Yes, I admit it. … I did not act in accordance with the morals you are supposed to preach. But let us be frank: Rebaudengo was a rogue and, when I think of all that I have done since then, I seem to have practised my roguery only on rogues. As for those boys, they were fanatics, and fanatics are the scum of the earth because it’s through them, and the vague principles they espouse, that wars and revolutions happen. And since I had come to realise that the number of fanatics in this world will never diminish, I decided that I might as well profit from their fanaticism.(p95)
And he does. He is sufficiently nimble to recover from the mistakes he makes, flexible enough to work for any master, and certainly amoral enough not to squib at the occasional murder. As the Narrator sardonically remarks:
Simonini was ahead of his time: in reality, with the spread of a free press and new ways of communicating, with telegraph and radio now imminent, confidential information was becoming increasingly rare, and this could have led to difficulties for the secret agent. Better not to have any secrets, but to make people believe you have. It was like living on a private income or enjoying earnings from patent rights – you enjoy a life of leisure while others boast about having received amazing revelations from you, your fame increases, and the money rolls in without you lifting a finger. (p277)
In the ‘Useless Learned Explanations’ Umberto Eco also tells us that only Simonini is a fabrication, and he is a ‘collage’ of real characters. The story is basically true. Historical figures, named or re-named by the author did actually do what this story says they did, and catastrophically, the fake Protocols of the Elders of Zion was used by Hitler to incite public opinion, justifying antiSemitism on a national scale which facilitated the Holocaust. The ‘Protocols’ are still widely disseminated today by antiSemites, so books like this one serve a useful purpose in creating a critical mass of readers who know that the ‘document’ was officially recognised as a cruel hoax in 1921 and will rebut claims that it is real. The Prague Cemetery for all its (intentionally) chaotic plot and narration is a simple morality tale …
The translation by Richard Dixon is excellent, and many thanks to him for enabling a most intriguing story.
See a most erudite review at Open Monthly and for other reviews by the Shadow IFFP Jury click here - I love Stu’s characterisation of Simonini as a version of Sherlock Holmes’ arch-villain Professor Moriarty!
Author: Umberto Eco
Title: The Prague Cemetery
Translated by Robert Dixon
Publisher: Harvill Secker (Random House) 2011
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library