Like millions of others in the 1980s, I read The Name of the Rose, and I later followed it up with Foucault’s Pendulum in about 1990. But I haven’t read another novel by Umberto Eco since then. Therefore, I was excited to pick up Prague Cemetery a couple of weeks ago and now I have devoured it. Unfortunately, I don’t believe I digested it well.
Prague Cemetery tells the story of a rather despicable man, Simone Simonini, and his place in a history that ranges from Garibaldi’s campaigns in Sicily and Naples in the 1860s, through the Paris Commune in the 1870s, to the Dreyfus Affair of the 1890s. In fact, as I was somewhat less than surprised to learn later, Simonini is the only fictional character in the entire book — all of the major players and most of the lesser ones are entirely historical.
Simonini is a forger and a vicious anti-Semite, working for various Secret Services, although it is still not entirely clear to me whether he believed the dastardly material he wrote about the Jews, or whether this was just another way for him to make a living within the context of his times. Among the numerous important historical documents that Simonini is purported to have forged, are the bordereau that convicted Dreyfus and, most significantly, the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion which would later influence Hitler’s Final Solution and various Russian pogroms.
One of the conceits of the book is that Simonini starts writing a detailed memoir/diary in the late 1890s as a result of meeting with an obscure Austrian doctor who, he thinks, is called Froide, and who has persuaded him that writing down his history will alleviate some phsycological problems he is having. A second conceit is that, for much of the book, we are not aware of whether Simonini is writing as himself or an alter ego called Father Dalla Picolla who, it seems, enters Simonini’s apartments at night and adds his own comments to the diary/memoir.
The book is thoroughly infused with late 19th century Continental fascinations such as Masonic lodges, anti-clericalism, mesmerism, food, and of course anti-semitism. The research that Eco has performed is stunning in its detail. The language is often sublime and there were times when I was certain I was back with my beloved Nabokov. However, by the end, the insistent intrusion of so much historical incident takes away from the novel qua novel, in my opinion, and I was rather glad to reach the end of it.