19th century Europe, from Turin to Prague to Paris, abounds with the ghastly and the mysterious. Conspiracies rule history. Jesuits plot against Freemasons. Italian 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 the 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 both these conspiracies both real and imagined, lay just one man? What if that evil genius created the most infamous document of all?
That, then, is the premise of The Prague Cemetery.
I’ve always been attracted to Umberto Eco’s books, but never really had the courage to actually read one. So when I got an opportunity to review this book, I jumped at the chance.
But it wasn’t an easy read. In fact, within the first 10 pages I was cursing myself for taking it on . It starts with such hatred – for Jews, Italians, Germans, French, women, that it’s hard to read. Until you realize that Simonini, the architect of the entire conspiracy, is an evil man. Pure evil. It takes that to do what he did – create a forgery that led to the persecution of the Jews, of which he was actually proud! Then, once I managed to get through that part, it started to become confusing, what with the Carbonaras, Garibaldi, Piedmont and The Kingdom of Two Sicilies. This is a part of history I wasn’t too familiar with.
Then, remembering something I had read once about Eco – that he sets off into history confident that the reader will be able to keep up with him – I took a deep breath, set my horror aside, and jumped right into the book. And realized just what that comment meant.
I referred to the guide at the back of the book where Eco lists the relationship between the plot and the story to ensure I got the time periods right, and I was sailing right through it.
The entire novel is told through Simonini’s diary. When he seems to forget some events, the mysterious Abbe Dalla Picolla pops onto the scene to fill out the gaps. These gentlemen live in adjoining flats and are quite oblivious that they are neighbors, occasionally finding traces of each other in their apartment. So while Simonini is confused about who he really is, he locks himself in his house and scribbles away in his diary to get to the root of his problem, as was recommend to him once by Dr. Freud. When Simonini and Dalla Picolla’s accounts get confusing, the Narrator steps in to clear things out.
And so you set off on a journey through the unification of Italy, Garibaldi’s campaign, and the French revolution. It’s not always easy, considering the numerous conspiracies and espionage and counter-espionage and treason woven through the book, and given that it’s all true, except for the character of Simonini. In fact, some of those truths are very relevant today.
Like this conspiracy attributed to the Jews:
We shall bring about a universal economic crisis using all secret means possible, with the help of gold, which is all in our hands. We will reduce vast hordes of workers throughout Europe to ruin. These masses will then throw themselves with alacrity upon those who, in their ignorance, have been prudent since their childhood, and will plunder their possessions and spill their blood.
The Eurozone debt crisis, anyone? Isn’t that what this, in a way, is?
And Simonini’s observation about the population in 1860 are probably even more relevant today:
I’ve heard it said that over a billion people inhabit this earth. I don’t know how anyone could count them but from one look around Palermo it’s quote clear that there are too many of us and that we’re already stepping on each other’s toes.
I liked the way Eco built up Simonini’s character. As you read the book, you realize his triggers, the factors that shaped his ideology, and the way he justified everything that he does. The book is also richly populated with historical characters – from Dr. Freud to Dumas and even a guest appearance by Monet. Gives you a real feel for the place and the time, and raises your curiosity, making you want to read more history – which is a great thing for a historical novel to accomplish.
More chilling is the portrait of man – of the depravity and scheming that goes on behind the scenes of every political regime, of the selling of morals just for a few francs. Most chilling, perhaps, is the picture of the secret service, who
is lost when he has to deal with something that has already happened. It’s our job to make it happen first. We’re spending substantial amounts of money organizing riots on the boulevards…To ensure that decent citizens are kept in a state of fear, and to convince everyone that tough measures are needed.
This made me wonder if maybe modern day politicians have read this book and taken this paragraph to heart.
Oh, and the many illustrations in the book – a majority of which are from Eco’s own collection, are excellent – helping you to more richly imagine the people and settings Eco describes in the book.
All-in-all, if you’re willing to put in some effort, you will be richly rewarded for reading this book.