19th-century Europe, from Turin to Prague to Paris, abounds with the ghastly and the mysterious. Conspiracies rule history. Jesuits plot against Freemasons, Italina priests are strangled with their own intestines. French criminals plan bombings by day and celebrate black masses by night. Every nation has its own secret service, perpetrating forgeries, plots, and massacres. From teh unification of Italy to the Paris Commune to the Dreyfus Affair to the notorious forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", Europe is in tumult and everyone needs a scapegoat. But, what if, behind all these conspiracies both real and imagined, lay just one man? What if that evil genius created the most infamous document of all?
Most of the characters in the book really existed, and their actions and utterances are
Simone is a vessel of all corruptions: a forger, spy and murderer, a loveless, friendless glutton, passionate only about food and antisemitism.
Eco imagines him as the grandson of a person who actually existed, Gian-Battista Simonini, and whose maniacal antisemitism culminated in a fan letter he wrote, one Jew-hater to another, to the Jesuit Augustin Barruel, in which he reported hearing about a Jewish conspiracy to destroy Christianity. The historical Simonini lied and exaggerated, and it's not clear (nor can ever be) what exactly was at root of his obsession. Eco imagines a meeting in the Jewish ghetto (where Simonini hid for a while to save his life) with a crazed Jewish refugee from Syria, whose ravings Simonini takes absolutely seriously, and embellishes and amplifies for Barruel's sake.
This is the first important thing: how little it takes for the obsession to take root, how ready and eager Simonini and innumerable people after him were to hate, against evidence, even against their own reason. The historical Simonini dropped out of sight after the letter to Barruel, but Eco makes of his early influence the fictional grandson's main motivation. (Also, the boy is just bad--vile.) Barruel himself kept the letter and used it years later as "evidence" of the Jewish conspiracy.
The snowball starts rolling. The narrative gradually amplifies the strands of the story, growing in size and complexity, involving a huge boiling anthill of political events. Eco navigates this roiling sea with elegant ease. There's no question that much is omitted, and don't expect deep characterisation, this is not a psychological novel (none of Eco's are). Nor is there any over-pretty painting of scenes. Too much is happening, and the numerous characters and events were so colourful in themselves, it would be superfluous. No fictionalist could come up with someone stranger than Abbe Boullan the Satanist, or Leo Taxil the anti-freemason crusader; more romantic than Ippolito Nievo (or Garibaldi himself); with something more terrible than the story of the Paris Commune; or more disgusting than the plot to scapegoat Dreyfus and forever destroy the idea that Jews can be good Frenchmen.
The book feels like a talk with a intensely engaging, erudite stranger on a train, a long ride, but unflagging in urgent interest. Eco doesn't have a great talent for explaining people, but sometimes, when we balk before the hopeless complexity of history, it feels enough to understand simply only what happened.
As a career forger who has been enlisted by the intelligence apparatuses of various powers, most often to fabricate "evidence" damning those they'd like to do away with, Simonini plagiarizes novels for his "historical" documents. Eco plagiarizes history for his novel. (He assures us that Simonini is the only fictional character of substance in the whole thing.) Eco's motives like Simonini's are didactic and propagandistic. Simonini wants to warn his readers about the Jews and their plots, Eco wants to warn us about antisemitism and its cultural conditions.
The fabrication of political scapegoats to suffer the outrages of authoritarian violence is not limited to the 20th-century antisemitic movements which are shown being incubated in this novel. Russian secret police have a part to play in The Prague Cemetery, and I would encourage those who read this book today to observe the persecution of gays and lesbians in Russia by means of cultural capital produced in America: the "family values" and anti-"homosexualist" rhetoric crafted by right-wing churches and think tanks. (Scott Lively is one of today's more obvious Simone Simoninis.)
Bereft of any nobler motivation, Simonini takes his chief enjoyment in life from food. The novel has occasional raptures of gastronomical detail, reminiscent of Huysmanns' diabolical 1890s novel La-Bas (which also includes--a clef--some of Eco's historical characters). A surprising but effective feature is an assortment of full-page illustrations from period engravings, at the rate of roughly one per chapter.
The Prague Cemetery does resume a number of themes from Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. But in this case, the seemingly more bizarre facts are even more authentic, and the moral upshot is more persuasive and important. Those who enjoy the historical elements of this story and don't mind adding a bit of whimsy to the incendiary past can continue on without diachronic interruption to Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day.
The protagonist was a person who made room only for hatred in his heart for everyone, but especially for Jews, Jesuits, Masons and women. His only positive enthusiasm was for food, and one of the signs that we know Eco is having fun while delivering an important lesson is that every opportunity is taken to embellish the narrative with recipes of whatever the protagonist happens to be dining on at the moment.
Eco has provided a case study of how conspiracies fed by bigotry, ignorance and fuzzy thinking can run amok when no one of importance values the truth. In his collection of essays entitled Serendipities, one of the essays, "The Force of Falsity," demonstrates how easy it is for little lies to become big lies that actually affect the lives of real people. Readers of The Prague Cemetery will find that essay to be instructive. One of Eco's messages is that "the wisdom of the community is based on constant awareness of the fallibility of our learning." In our current democratic society, we also carry the burden of being constantly aware of the fallibility of learning of our leaders. The level of petty and everyday corruption exposed in the pages of The Prague Cemetery really gives one pause. We could think of it as a canary in the coal mine.
The novel is a story of an Italian man living in Paris who developed proficiency in the art of reporting and creating information, a transmission agent involved in the many conspiracies of governments, religions, and private organizations. Simonini is a historical lynchpin whose personality is the result of the views of his grandfather and father who taught him to stereotype people, usually in a negative way.
In his diary,Simonini writes about his upbringing and adventures as a forger, writer of fictional accounts, conversational manipulator, and gourmand. He writes that historical factions and intrigues come and go, but the anti-Semitic stereotype remains valuable in both his writer-for-hire work and his private thoughts. He describes his greatest work as a fictional account of a meeting by Jewish elders in a Prague cemetery where they developed a plan to take over the world. Jewish people, because of their education and training, could infiltrate and ultimately control all aspects of Western life. Since they hide their Jewish identity, their infiltration, when described in official documents, is taken as frightening evidence of a grand Jewish conspiracy. By manipulating information about clandestine activities, Simonini helps to increase the ever present anti-Semitism related to hatred of bankers and other holders of privilege. Simonini's self-serving actions set the stage for "the final solution" of the Jewish problem in the middle 20th Century.
This very interesting novel is complex in its historical detail and it takes some time to understand the wheeling and dealing activities of conflicting parties. Mr. Eco includes a time-line for following incidents in the diary. He also includes a narrator to explain some of Simonini's diary contents. I found the events in the novel to be remarkably similar to 21st Century information misdirection and nefarious plots that have led us to the brink of world chaos. Much of the world now continues to blame the Jewish people for economic and social problems. We see Western politicians and journalists acting like Simonini in their reinforcement of this anti-Semitism. Are we encouraging another "final solution?"
The Prague Cemetery is an excellent novel for readers who enjoy rich and complex historical detail and the humor and self-serving motivation of interesting characters. The novel is similar in theme to The Name of the Rose in its focus on the power of the written word.
The book is presented as the journal of Captain Simonini, originally from Italy, but a long time resident in Paris, written at the end of the 19th
Simonini has become and expert forger and is much in demand to create wills and other legal documents to support his clients’ claims. He is also drawn in to the darker worlds of conspiracy and espionage where he begins to create documents and paper trails with a distinct anti-Semitic bent. This activity ultimately causes him to write the notorious Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an entirely fictitious and disproved work that, nevertheless, became a founding element in the anti-semitism movement in the 20th century and was taken up by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party.
Eco does two things with this book. The first is to provide an extraordinarily factual historic background to the narrative; almost every character and event in the book is part of the historic record. The second and most important thing is to show how totally ridiculous, almost comical, these conspiracies and ‘documented revelations’ were. As I read this book today I kept asking myself how anyone could fall for, let alone believe, such twaddle.
This is an important book in the fight against racism and against anti-semitism in particular. It shows how the gullible and unscrupulous both can be used by and use what we would today call trolling to achieve the key aim of deflecting blame and responsibility for some perceived failure onto the wholly innocent. That Eco does this with such humour is a mark of his greatness as an author.
Those familiar with Eco will recognize the pattern. Take historical fact and weave a story around it. Myself, I've only read Name of the Rose—and loved it, in fact—where he did some of this, but the story he wove there was much richer and robust. The story he wove through Cemetery felt, to me, forced. Clearly he did an incredible amount of research about this time and place in history. And, admirably, he found a way to create his own protagonist (if we can call so loathsome a creature as Simone Simonini a protagonist of anything) and with Zelig-like grace intertwine his actions throughout the historical fact around him. And if his (Eco's) intentions were to write a plausible creation story for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion with a plausible creator, then well done, sir.
However (and I realize this is the second "however" in this review), just because you can do a thing doesn't mean you should do a thing. I found this novel to be far too replete with odious anti-semitism. I'm not Jewish myself, although I have a few Jewish friends, and wouldn't consider myself to be any champion of the faith, but I was highly offended by all of the anti-Jewish rhetoric spouted throughout the book.
Sure, I realize that the main character was supposed to be loathsome, we were supposed to realize this and that anything he said was in fact the vile lies of someone not to be trusted, and in fact he was one of the best representations of an unreliable main character that I've ever seen (and I won't give away the details here except to say the brilliance by which we creates this unreliability was only outshone by the massive blemish which is chapter 25, entitled "Sorting Matters Out" but which could just as easily been titled, "Explaining What I Just Did There Because I'm Not Positive You Readers Are Smart Enough To Have Figured It Out Yourselves Even Though I Dropped Enough Clues So A Man Could Walk From Greenland To Iceland To Scotland Without Getting His Feet Wet") but still, enough is enough. I can only read about how horrible the Jews are and the ridiculous rumors their anti-semitic detractors were willing to spread so many times before I start feeling a little sick to my stomach.
Perhaps that was my fault. Should I have known more about the subject matter going in? I'd never heard of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion before. Did I miss that chapter in my European History classes? Was I asleep? Do most people know about this period in history? Maybe.
Or maybe I was just hoping for another historically accurate, wonderfully written, richly textured thriller like Rose and am sorely disappointed by what I got instead.
Not to say that the book is utterly without merit - the last hundred pages or so got really juicy, with episodes ranging from a Satanic black mass, to the Dreyfus Affair, and the publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. I just wish I hadn't had to slog through 350 pages of maddeningly erudite obfuscation, to get to it.
Pros: fascinating look at a period of history largely ignored by modern readers, thought provoking
Cons: lots of politically incorrect and thereby uncomfortable speeches, vivid depiction of a black mass, unlikable protagonist
Simone Simonini's personal motto
The novel begins with Simonini having lost his memory. He starts a diary in order to remember who he is, starting with his youth. Abbe Dalla Piccola, living in an adjoining apartment, has also lost his memory, but seems to know what happened during segments of Simonini's past, adding his own notes to Simonini's writings. Are they the same person? Or did Simonini merely confess these actions to the abbot?
Simonini is not a likable protagonist, and the book is an uncomfortable read, both due to Simonini's extremely vitriolic hate speeches (against many groups but there's more anti-semitic sentiment than others) as well as for a detailed description of a black mass (modified Latin and all). The second chapter of the book serves as a litmus test for the rest, shocking the reader and daring you to read on. If you can get past chapter 2 you'll have read the worst - though not the only - hate speeches in the book.
The book takes place during the late 1800s, when racist sentiments were the norm. Based on real people and events, it's a difficult, yet fascinating world to be thrown into. Along the way you encounter Alexander Dumas, Sigmund Freud (spelled Froide in the book), the Satanic cultist Abbot Boullan and more. From the Second Italian War of Independence to the Paris Commune of 1871, you'll be exposed to the bitter realities of the times. A reader would do well to have quick access to wikipedia in order to learn more about some of the strange - and accurate - things mentioned.
The Prague Cemetery is more accessible to the average reader than some of Eco's other novels which, given the sarcasm inherent in his forward and afterward is likely due to pressure from his publisher. Most of the foreign language segments have been translated into English, and he's helpfully provided a timeline at the back of the book for those who couldn't follow the narrative. A dramatis personae list would have been more helpful, as characters pass in and out of the work so frequently it's hard to remember who they are when they return.
In his forward Eco makes it clear that having his meticulously researched work of fiction compared to a popular (and more fanciful) work like The Da Vinci Code is something of an insult, despite how entertaining the latter book may be. He assumes there are two types of readers - The Da Vinci Code thrill seeker who will take all the events depicted in The Prague Cemetery as entertaining fiction, and the more intelligent reader who is interested in history and recognizes the real events and characters depicted and who see the horror inherent in the underlying message that real people did these things.
It seems that Eco is commenting on how far we as humans have come in the past two hundred years, by reminding us of where we've been. If so, it's also a warning of how easy it is to fall prey to visionaries, revolutionaries and fraudsters. And how readily others are willing to exploit us. Caveat lector: Let the reader, beware.
The book tells the story of Captain Simonini (to give just one of his pseudonyms), an Italian who lives in Paris and forges legal documents for a living. His
There is another aspect to the book: the story unfolds in the diaries of Simonini. He actually has a split personality, and neither personality knows the other, so they write in the same diary, trying to figure out if they are the same person or not, filling in gaps in each others' memories. This sounds pretty interesting, but I think it is rather poorly executed. A lot of the dialog between Simonini's personalities is actually summarized by a Narrator, whose presence is never really clearly explained and who seems totally unnecessary, except as a shortcut to save Eco the bother of writing dialog between two characters. Eco often has some very interesting insights about memory and its relationship to reality, but I didn't feel like this device actually added anything to the story.
My final problem with the book is that all of the characters were really despicable. Simonini is a nasty man, and he causes deaths and ultimately genocide without a second thought. It was really hard to care what happened to him, because he was such a rotten person.
There were times when I thought about abandoning this book. I am glad I read to the end, because the last few pages were satisfying, but I still found this to be a huge disappointment.
Probably a lot of commentators on this book will have started off by sensibly stating this warning or something similar: Warning, this book is a take on the history of a document known as 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' The foundations of much modern anti-Semitism. You will be reading the
The story is told in a series of flashbacks as the forger attempts to regain his full memory by writing down what he can of his past. Many groups and nationalities will be slandered in his career. The toilet and eating habits of the German peoples will memorably come under attack early on.
I don't personally think it's fair to say that Umberto Eco hasn't done enough to discredit the fictional forger. The few really laboured moments of the plot seem to be almost clumsy attempts to explain the forgers prejudices, he almost seems a little too eager to show the pathetic roots of the character's beliefs. For example his encounter with a Jewish girl and the negative outcome (for him) almost seem like a few paragraphs tacked on for good measure, just in case anyone missed the point the author was trying to make which is essentially that this master forger is really a scared child, spouting his mindless fears as reality for money at the behest of political manipulators and that even he doesn't fully believe. It's true that the forger never has to confront at face value the potential damage that his hateful forgeries can inspire, but I don't want to give too much away as a spoiler.
As a read it is a typical, non Name of the Rose, Eco book, in other words heavy going and laced with endless historical references that almost overwhelm. I think in this case a brief brush up on the Italian wars of unification, maybe an hour on Wikipedia before starting reading, might make a few of the chapters a little easier on the brain.
I read in an interview that the author believes in giving the reader a challenge and he certainly has here, but in my opinion a challenge well worth taking on.
Don't get me wrong, I love Eco, and admire his writing greatly - for its prose style, its structure, its meticulous research - the book more than deserves 4 stars. It's a very worthwhile read.
I also have mixed feelings about the plot device of having the narrator be an amnesiac/split personality, trying to piece together his identity and past. It was interesting, yes, but it wasn't necessary to the story, and I felt it was also too similar to the device used in 'Queen Loana.' Much like 'Loana' as well, the book is 'illustrated' with historical engravings 'from the author's collection.' The images are fascinating, but I wish that more specific historical context/credit for them had been provided.
This novel feels claustrophobic and restricted by the presence of so many real life figures in it. Instead of enriching the read, as the did in "Baudolino," they seem to suffocate the story.
Also, the subject – falsely created Zionist extremism in late 19th. C. Europe is not interesting to me. Late update: as a result of all the above, I dodn't finish the book.
Eco's undertaking of the subject of antisemitism buried me in a cemetery of dullness after I died of boredom.
The protagonist of Umberto Eco's novel is not a sympathetic character. His first words to the reader are in the form of an epic rant in which he
And that's my quibble with this outrageous, conspiracy-driven book. It's similar to Foucault's Pendulum, being full of arcane plots and secret societies, and to Baudolino with an opportunistic main character who deals in forgeries. But while Casaubon and Baudolino were engaging characters despite their flaws, Simonini is a guy who inspires only a mild distaste. With a complex plot that requires concentration and a good grasp of nineteenth century European history (among other things), I needed someone to hold on to through the cyclone of events and obscure references.
Simonini gets his professional start forging wills and titles for an unscrupulous lawyer, until that gentleman dies and leaves Simonini his business, in an unexpected will. Simonini is then asked to implicate his friends in an imaginary plot, which then lead to an assignment with Garibaldi's forces in the South of Italy and on to further work in Paris. Simonini is less a spy than someone who is able to enjoy the reputation of a spy and to convey that reputation into a steady income. But his masterpiece, one that takes much of his life to complete and use appropriately, involves an imaginary meeting of rabbis in the Jewish cemetery in Prague in which they agree on a series of protocols that will allow them to control the world.
The conspiracies that Simonini is involved in are fantastic. More than a few times I'd be reading along and think, "hey, that sounds a little like that scandal/affair/coup," only to realize that it was that scandal/affair/coup and that Eco has the entire event based on Simonini's forgeries and groups with devious intentions.
This is a book I struggled with in part because my grasp of the history of that time is shallow and unsteady. I'd like to reread this book in a few years, with a bit of advance reading under my belt. I suspect I will like it more with a second reading.
It starts with the amnesia of the narrator, who decided, therefore, what he has experienced and done to bring in the form of a diary on paper. He suddenly discovered that a second I, which appears in the form of a priest, writes down his memories in this diary, too. This is made great because of the font in the book changes, according as who writes down his thoughts.
It is not only the fears at the time, about Eco writes but also the rapid technological and political changes.
Another problem is that the copy of this that I was listening to was pretty damaged, and thus hunks of the story had to be skipped. I'll wait to find either a print copy or an undamaged audio version and relisten to disks 5&6 to catch up and fill in the blanks.
The quote above tells you almost everything you need to know about the protagonist of Umberto Eco's latest novel. Set in 19th century Europe, Captain Simonini is an equal opportunity misanthrope, and early in the novel there's a lengthy diatribe against not only the Jews
I think it took me about three attempts to make it past these over-the-top opening salvos of hatred, and a smarter reader would have quit, but Eco has defeated me in the past, and I was determined to read this entire book. Why? Why? The Prague Cemetery is a dense, complex, convoluted tour through 19th century European history. (I strongly recommend that you acquire a Ph.D. in the subject before you sit down to read.) Simonini, it seems, is--Forrest Gump-like--at the center of almost all major events, and pretty much behind every conspiracy of the era.
As you may have gathered above, he is not a good guy. At one point he justifies: "Yes, I admit it. In my conduct toward my would-be Carbonari comrades, and to Rebaudengo, 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 I have done since then, I seem to have practiced all of my roguery on rogues." Yeah, right.
The novel is an autobiography of sorts, as there is some confusion as to Simonini's identity. He seems to be possibly inhabiting the same apartment? body? mind? as a clergyman named Abbé Dalla Piccola. Simonini's memory is full of holes, which Dalla Piccola seems to be able to fill, as he inserts his own recollections into Simonini's written document. Does this sound confusing? You have no idea. "Abbé Dalla Piccola seems to reawaken only when Simonini needs a voice of conscious to accuse him of becoming distracted and to bring him back to reality, otherwise he appears somewhat forgetful. To be frank, if it were not for the fact that these pages refer to events that actually took place, such alternations between amnesiac euphoria and dysphoric recall might seem like a device of the Narrator."
On the subject of "events that actually took place," pretty much all of the history (if not the stories behind the events) took place, and in fact, according to Eco, Simonini is the only fictional character in the entire novel. So, those European history Ph.D.s are really going to have a field day. For the rest of us, not so much fun, I have to say.
If it's not yet clear, I hated this book. I violently HATED this book! Reading it gave me PTSD. I know, you're wondering why the three stars? Well, as much as I hated it, I can't actually tell you it's bad. Eco is a brilliant, talented writer. I simply can't imagine why he chose to use his talent to tell this particular story. Here are some of the issues I had with the novel:
* The required knowledge of history was oppressive. Without that knowledge, the novel was almost impossible to follow and/or appreciate.
* The cast of thousands, all with multi-syllabic foreign names, was impossible to keep track of, especially as characters would reappear decades after their last appearance in the book.
* Despite the sheer amount of stuff that happens within these pages, the story moves at what, for me, was an excruciatingly slow pace. I'm not actually sure how Eco managed that.
* Not only is the central character a truly awful human being, there really is no one to like or care about much in the book.
* While at first I was able to shrug off the anti-Semitic content of the novel, after 464 pages of the most vile garbage imaginable, it really, really got to me. As a Jew of European descent, no matter how ridiculous and over-the-top the hatred was (from all characters, not just Simonini), I know that everything Eco wrote was very reflective of the attitudes of the era. It made me ill. Make no mistake; I don't believe Mr. Eco is an anti-Semite. I just didn't need to read this hatred. It hurt me.
Umberto Eco is a great writer, but any way you chose to look at The Prague Cemetery, I don't believe to be among his strongest works, and it is certainly not one of his more accessible titles. Despite Mr. Eco's talent, I can't recommend this book to anyone. And it'll be a long time before I decide to read him again.