The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco
This 2010 novel is a difficult book to review. Captain Simone Simonini is writing a memoir about the prejudiced grandfather of his youth, and then his early adventures involving Gariboldi’s effort to unite Italy. But it is a beginning that appears mainly to establish Simonini as a ruthless man and a brilliant forger. Because the work quickly introduces a spiritual, philosophical intrigue among the Vatican, the Freemasons, and the Jews. Which converts this novel about nationalism and politics into a novel of demonization and subversion, a novel of the infighting among believers and nonbelievers, clergy and heretics, among the powerful and the manipulators and their victims. And the purpose of this intrigue? To defame the Jews.
We realize early on that Simonini is a forger and a murderer. He is also the grandson of an (historic) figure named Simonini who has imbued in his grandson a hatred of the Jews. What is intriguing at this point is that the grandson has an interesting relationship with Abbe Dalla Piccola, with whom he exchanges messages, and who remembers recent events that Simonini cannot; and vice versa, Simonini remembers things the abbot cannot. Their psychological partnership is further enhanced when Simonini recalls a long conversation he once had with a man he calls Froide.
While this opening section is being told by Simonini in his memoir; there are occasional responses to his writing by the abbot. But soon a narrator appears, as if Eco has realized he cannot advance his story in a manageable length unless he uses this narrator to condense and interpret the complicated events which we are about to read. Moreover, Simonini’s youthful adventures in Italy with Garibaldi, quite confusing to the reader who does not know that history, will soon be matched by a more complicated intrigue.
Exiled to Paris for this criminal behavior in Italy, Simonini enters the primary events of the novel. This is the intrigue among the Church (primarily the Jesuits), the Freemasons, and the Jews to discredit one another. But particularly to discredit the Jews. And because he is such a skilled forger, Simonini decides to seek a client who will pay him to forge a document that purports to expose the Jews’ plot to dominate the world by subverting its morals, its politics, and its finances. This deception is to be in the form of a transcript of a meeting by 12 Jews in the cemetery at Prague, where they plot their strategy. Simonini knows he is the perfect man to forge this document, which he begins to call his protocols, because of his grandfather’s documents and his own awareness of how novelists such as Eugene Sue and the elder Dumas have filled their work with anti-Jewish diatribes.
Gradually, the reader realizes he is reading a possible scenario of how The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was created. Which takes the edge off the continual slurs against the Jews that assassinate their character, expose their evil motives, and condemn them as a people— invective that fill this book. In fact, the protocols blame everything that is wrong with Western society on the Jews. What Eco achieves here is a daring strategy to fill this book with zealous vituperation, and yet cleverly show that these insults do not reflect the author or this book, but originate with these characters. And this is enforced when Eco reveals at the end that all the characters, except Simonini himself, are actual historic figures.
I must confess that I was lost in the complexity of this religious intrigue. Mainly because it was difficult to identify these multiple characters as they reappeared on the scene. What was their relationship to Simonini, I kept asking myself. And because they were not fully fleshed out, instead representing a specific argument, it was difficult to recall their multiple motives and the allegiances, and which aspect of the protocols plotting they stood for.
Perhaps this is because Eco’s remarkable research led him into recreating too much of this elaborate intrigue—so much that the characters exist in their relationship to the protocols plot more than they do in their relationship to one another. And Eco himself obviously recognized the difficulty in following the novel’s story, for at the end of this book he summarizes the events of each chapter. He writes: ”for the benefit of the overly meticulous reader, or one who is not so quick on the uptake, here is a table that sets out the relationship” [between the novel’s events and the telling of those events].
Eco has clearly chosen a sensitive topic here. In fact, he has taken on the most sensitive subject in the world’s cultural history, the defamation of the Jews—and shown the ruthlessness and the intrigue behind this merciless campaign. Indeed, he has illustrated how men are willing both to deceive themselves and to excuse their defense of this historic injustice.
I only wish Eco could have presented these events more clearly. That he had not chosen the elaborate combination of a memoir and a narrative—although I was grateful that he used contrasting type faces to delineate those different perspectives. And perhaps he also stuck too close to history, which prompted the introduction of such a broad range of characters. Yes, the protocols were created as a result of a complicated and interrelated series of factors. But I am not sure the verisimilitude achieved was sufficient to justify this approach to a work of literature.
To sum up, this is a remarkable story told in a remarkable way. But Eco was motivated more by history than by literature. The creation of the protocols was too complicated a story, I believe, to allow the unity required for literary art. And as a result of this complexity, the multiple characterizations suffered. What works is that this is a credible story, at the same time that it is a confusing one. And it has a strong central character, Simonini, even if a despicable one.
Rereading this novel would surely bring a closer understanding of the story, and how the various characters interrelated. But the original reading experience has not been enjoyable enough to entice me to do this. (May, 2014)