Take the fragmented and volatile nature of 19th century European history, mix in a grand cast of real people, show how well read you are by referring to a wide range of real and fictional writing, and invent a thoroughly dislikeable anti-hero to tie it all together. The result is Umberto Eco’s sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, a book full of intrigue, deception and betrayal, which goes back to the familiar ground of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose.
Eco’s academic credentials include philosophy, semiotics, literary criticism and media and communications. Fifty years ago he first published his ideas on ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts, and in his novels it seems he has pushed these ideas through into practice. The Prague Cemetery certainly requires the reader to engage, and engage deeply, questioning what is being reported on the page, and by whom. To add to the complexity, readers also need to remember that this is a translation from Italian into English. That such a complex and dynamic piece of writing should retain its integrity after such a process is remarkable.
It is also clear that Eco really meant what he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2011; ‘People are tired of simple things; they want to be challenged.’ Not only does The Prague Cemetery require nothing short of your full attention, moving as it does between a narrator – we are supposed to think this is Eco himself, perhaps – the journal entries of Simone Simonini, and notes made by Simonini’s alter ego, Abbe Dalla Piccola. It also assumes the reader has a very high level of trust in the narrator, whether it is Eco, Simonini, or Dalla Piccola, to recount in great detail the complex shifts in power in 19th century European politics. Eco knows it is unlikely many readers will be as well read on this subject as he is, and spares us no detail.
But he is not just doing this to show off. Simonini is a forger, used by more than one government, or would be government, to supply ‘genuine’ documents to the other side. Who is on the other side, and who is on his side, it is hard to say. Simonini is an unreliable narrator, and it is mostly his account of his life, written nearly thirty years after the events themselves, that we are reading. We cannot be sure that anything he tells us is true. At best it is just a version – his version – of the truth. Add in the brief notes by Dalla Piccola and the interjections by the narrator and we see the world as Eco wants us to see it – complex, confusing and where we can’t know everyone’s true intentions and motivations. Just like real life.
Eco has included monochrome images of supposed engravings of the events Simonini writes about, showing us that Simonini is in fact writing a journal for publication. He is, we are supposed to believe, finally writing down the truth about his colourful life, and the role he played in producing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an account of a meeting of Jewish elders in a cemetery in Prague. The Protocols exist, and are widely held to be a hoax. That did not stop them being used by the Russians and the Nazis, and even today there are claims that they are genuine.
Eco threads layer upon layer of fiction, fact, history and humour throughout this novel. Those who are not experts in this period of European history may find the detail distracting or annoying. I’d recommend setting aside your concerns; don’t try and remember all the characters and who they are aligned with. Never heard of the Two Kingdoms of Sicily? Don’t worry about it.
Not sure who Garibaldi was? Never mind. Unclear about the sequence of events with the Prussians, Bonaparte and the French Revolution? Let it go. No-one really knows all the details. Simonini certainly doesn’t, and you shouldn’t try. There are plenty of other books you can read if you’re interested.
Instead, read The Prague Cemetery for what it is: a rollicking tale of a thoroughly unlikeable, anti-Semitic, food-obsessed murderer, at the heart of deception after deception that shaped the course of European history at the time and – in the case of the forgery that sits at the centre of the book, the Protocols – decades to come. For Europeans, especially continental Europeans, the events in this book were not that long ago. They are, still, fresh in the memory. France and Italy are proud republics with volatile political environments. In that sense, they are still very much the countries described in The Prague Cemetery. And this is a serious business; the Protocols were used by the Nazis, in part, to justify the Holocaust.
The Prague Cemetery won’t be to everyone’s taste. Simonini is a nasty piece of work, but unlike most anti-heroes it’s hard to ever feel any sympathy or empathy for him. The historical details can be exhausting. And while we know its Simonini, not Eco, being anti-Semitic, the thoughts Eco puts in Simonini’s head, and the words he puts in his mouth, are disturbing.
If you want a story about conspiracies, European history and deception where you know who the villain is because he’s an creepy looking albino priest who tortures himself, where the world is threatened and saved at the last minute, and where the hero is an American and gets the girl, Dan Brown’s the author for you. For everyone else, there’s Umberto Eco.
Reviewed by C P Howe
The Prague Cemetery
by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon
Published by Vintage Books