Monday, November 28, 2011

A Review of The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco's new novel The Prague Cemetery is a fictional account of the origins of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fake document first published at the turn of the 20th century which claims to reveal a Jewish plot to take over the world. Even though the text was proven to be a forgery in the early 1920s, Adolf Hitler and the Nazis used The Protocols as justification for the Holocaust. The Protocols continued to be published after World War II, and is thought to be "the most the most widely circulated work in the world after The Bible."

In The Prague Cemetery, Eco (The Name of the Rose, 1980; Foucault's Pendulum, 1988) imagines The Protocols to be the work of a single man, Captain Simone Simonini, a fictional character Eco describes a bit optimistically as "the most cynical and disagreeable in all the history of literature." Simonini is a 19th century forger who, throughout his career in Italy and France, is entangled in intricate plots involving secret police and criminals, monarchists and revolutionaries, Jesuits and Templars, Freemasons and Satanists, etc. Simonini draws on his own many misdeeds, for example his fabrication of evidence used in the Dreyfus Affair, in composing his penultimate work, a masterpiece forgery which scapegoats Jews for Europe's upheavals.

Sounds pretty straightforward, eh? Well, in order to tie all of this together, the story is told by an unidentified narrator who comments wryly on Simonini's diary which in turn includes disconcerting entries by a third character, the Abbe Dalla Piccola, who may or may not be Simonini's split personality. The narrator does not fail to note the humor in this confusion:
"Certainly, the papers your Narrator is browsing are full of surprises, and might be worth using one day as the basis for a novel."

"The narrator is beginning to find this amoebean dialogue between Simonini and his intrusive abbe rather tiresome."

"To be frank, if it were not for the fact that these pages refer to events that actually took place, such alternations between amnesic euphoria and dysphoric recall might seem like a device of the Narrator."
On top of it all, Simonini is a gourmand, and much of The Prague Cemetery reads like this:
"So he went at the earliest opportunity to Laperouse, in quai des Grands-Augustins, and not downstairs, where they served oysters and entrecotes as they used to, but upstairs, in one of the cabinets particuliers where you could order barbue sauce hollandaise, casserole au riz a la Toulouse, aspics de filets de lapereaux en chaud-froid, truffes au champagne, pudding d’abricots a la Venitienne, corbeille de fruits frais and compotes de peches et d’ananas...."

"The other place that had immediately seduced me was the Cafe Anglais, on the corner of rue de Gramont and boulevard des Italiens. It had once been a restaurant for coachmen and servants and now served le tout Paris at its tables. There I discovered pommes Anna, ecrevisses bordelaises, mousses de volaille, mauviettes en cerises, petites timbales a la Pompadour, cimier de chevreuil, fonds d’artichauts a la jardiniere and champagne sorbets. The mere mention of these names makes me feel that life is worth living...."

"With a feeling of relief I invited Golovinsky to dinner at Paillard, on the corner of Chaussee-d’Antin and boulevard des Italiens. Expensive, but superb. Golovinsky clearly appreciated the poulet a l’archiduc and the canard a la presse. But someone who came from the Steppes may well have tucked into choucroute with the same enthusiasm. It would have cost me less, and I could have avoided the waiters’ suspicious looks at a customer who masticated so noisily...."
At one point, a skeptical character asks, "How can an American girl who’s only just arrived in France know all the secrets of Italian politics?" I would add, "Or French cuisine?"

But I appreciated most, if not all, of The Prague Cemetery, chewing through it as noisily as I did. How can one not enjoy a true-to-life novel which includes "sewers filled with corpses, ships that explode in the region of an erupting volcano, abbots stabbed to death, notaries with fake beards, hysterical female Satanists, the celebrants of black Masses, and so on"? I especially enjoyed the contemporary illustrations, which are reminiscent of Sidney Paget's original drawings of Sherlock Holmes in Strand Magazine.

My only criticism is that while The Prague Cemetery focuses on the roots of modern anti-Semitism, Umberto Eco seems uninterested in seriously examining the profound suffering it causes. Instead, Eco is satisfied in his belief that his fiction is more real and devious than Dan Brown's.

If, like me, your knowledge of 19th century European politics, religion, and literature is a little rusty, you might start off with the graphic novel The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion by Will Eisner. The Plot, with an introduction by Umberto Eco, provides context which makes The Prague Cemetery much more enjoyable.

~Michael May, Adult Services

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco was published on November 8, 2011 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This review was based on the digital galley obtained from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt through

No comments:

Post a Comment