The Prague Cemetery ~ Umberto Eco

Phew! Umberto Eco’s latest turned out to be (for me) the classic slog. I finished it! I finished it! Eco gives us a look into the fractured mind(s) of one Captain Simonini, a fictional character who (in the novel) is surrounded mostly by actual names from history. Many of these will certainly be familiar to the reader: Garibaldi,  Dumas – and others who probably will not be. The Captain and his Froideian (sic) alter-ego Abbe Dalla Piccola are writing the diary of the major events of their life (with occasional commentary from The Narrator).

The novel begins (“A passerby in the grey morning”) like a hand-held camera giving the audience glimpses of fin de siècle Paris. Then we are given more than a glimpse – we are immersed in the mind of an equal opportunity hater (“Odi ergo sum. I hate therefore I am”). A misogynist, and an anti-Semite. His most vicious bile is reserved for the jews throughout the novel. But there’s plenty to go ’round. Of course, I found myself repelled by the venom directed toward the jews. But I also had a bit of an epiphany. Hatred, and its progenitor stereotyping, is a slippery slope. I found myself not as appalled by the equal hatred directed toward the hypocrisy of the clergy

…they talk with horror about sex, but every day you see them getting out og an incestuous bed without so much as washing their hands, and they eat and drink their Lord, then shit and piss him out.

Yet there is this truth:

People are never so completely and enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction

I recognized (not in myself, but in others) a spiteful hatred of all things French. Remember when we were supposed to boycott French Fries?

The Frenchman doesn’t really know what he wants, but knows perfectly well that he doesn’t want what he has. And the only way he knows of saying it is by singing songs.

They think the whole world speaks French.

Now this hatred was inherited from his grandfather, Giovanni Battista Simonini, (his description of jews told you where he stood: “hyena lips over bared teeth, those heavy, polluted, brutish looks”) who not only set Simonini on this path, but provided the impetus in the form a letter for the entire story. That story was essentially a fictitious meeting at the jewish cemetery in Prague, from which The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was agreed upon. Again, fictitious. The cemetery (which I visited on my Prague trip is an eerie experience – though I did not make a connection when I was there with the so-called Protocols. I remember that visitors could not walk through the cemetery with a camera and take pictures, although there are plenty of images on-line which accurately depict the feeling of it.

It’s a long book, although significant amounts of literary real estate are taken up by the gluttonous feasts described by Simonini  as well as the listings of the titles of various Masons. Struggling with the beginning, I was finally able to get behind and follow the story, but frankly my mind wandered from time to time because the ‘real estate’ issue.  For me, the story was diluted by these perceived flaws. My attention  was grabbed not by the plot, but by some experiences that flooded back in to my consciousness (the cemetery itself as noted above), some universal truths that I recognised in Eco’s writing.

When a character, talking about “the final solution” mentions the Nazi mantra “arbeit macht frei” every hair on my body stood up as I was transported (as I have been several times – the feeling never goes away) back to my visit to Terezin (“the small fortress”). The children’s camp. The thing that struck me most was the meticulously detailed records kept by the Nazis there. The artifacts, actual tickets once held by children on their way to the chambers, the suitcases with a child’s name on it, causes the tears to stream down my face even as I type this. The mundaneness of these things next to the horror of the function of the place carries with it an almost inconceivable sadness for the human race.

I have certainly found these to be as true today as they were in the past:

…those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves…National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same

There is nothing better than the arrival of policemen to kindle feelings of violence among students 

The Simonini-Dalla Piccola question was the first stumbling block of many to follow. I actually breathed a sigh of relief when my speculation turned out to be spot on.

Perhaps (the Narrator wonders) he had split his personality…to create someone to talk to

In a final section entitled “Useless Learned Explanations”, Eco explains the connection between “The Story and Plot” for those of us readers who are either “overly meticulous” or “not so quick on the uptake”. Guilty as charged, Umberto

The novel is full of illustrations, many of which are from Eco’s private collection. Many of the images are disturbingly anti-Semtic in nature. I often wonder about the mind-set of those who collect this sort of stuff. I cast no aspersions on Eco’s motives, I just have never been able to figure this sort of thing out. It reminds me of those who collect images of “negroes” as depicted in popular culture back in the forties and earlier. These are just as stereotypical as anything Eco has in his private collection. Anyway….

There are other pleasures that are ancillary to an enjoyment of the actual book. Besides the names with which we are familiar: Garibaldi, Dumas, Captain Dreyfus (The Dreyfus Affair), Flaubert, Napoleon, Machiavelli, Zola, there were real life inhabitants of the novel that I looked up with pleasure. I’m kind of an anal reader in that way.

Peter Rachovksy, a tsarist secret agent

Abbé Barruel, a French Jesuit

Eugene Sue, journalist and novelist

Hermann Goedsche, author of Biarritz

George Du Maurier, Punch cartoonist

Théophile Gautier

Adam Weishaupt, founder of the Illuminati

Carlo Alberto, King of Sardinia

Pope Pius IX

Juliette Adam, author who founded a French salon

Yuliana Glinka

Matvei Vasilyevich Golovinski

We are also treated to name-dropping from historical references not directly related to the story at hand (Baron Hasuumann, Etienne Dolet, Chopin (“that consumptive Polish pianist kept by a degenerate woman who went about in trousers”)


Recommended Reading: The Leopard by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa for a great background novel on the first adventure in Eco’s current one.

For some insightful thoughts, and a more appreciative view of Eco’s writing, please see Kris Merino’s review at Intelligent Life


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