Tuesday, February 21, 2012

What We're Reading: The Prague Cemetery

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

To those of us whose first introduction to the Italian author Umberto Eco was The Name of the Rose, The Prague Cemetery is a novel that will feel familiar. Eco invariably writes “historical” fiction, but his novels are never just novels of period costume and antiquarian setting. His primary concern is to explore the ideas of the age, but he is also inviting the reader to make contemporary associations, to understand the historical antecedents of contemporary ideas. Ever the scholar, it is Eco’s particular joy to play with the intellectual currents of an era and to excavate their relationship to its demimonde, discovering unexpected affinities between the two, and drawing those connections for us with Rabelaisian imagery and wit.

The setting of The Prague Cemetery is politically turbulent nineteenth-century Europe. Satire works by distorting the proportions of the real and the quotidian, depicting situations in which things infinitely small become stretched to importance beyond plausibility and reason, and things large and important are dismissed or go unnoticed. In this case, Eco paints a world in which surface political events are found to be not the products of large political or economic forces but rather the products of historical conspiracy. History unfolds not by dialectic but rather by a series of petty intrigues and cabals. Every nation has its own secret service, perpetrating forgeries, plots, and massacres. These are revealed to us, naked and violent, in Eco’s account of the unification of Italy, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, and the creation of the nineteenth-century’s most famous forgery, the so called Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was a supposedly secret transcription of a “plan” presented by Jewish elders at a apocryphal convocation of European Jewish leaders in the Prague Cemetery. The sensational plan was a detailed blueprint of how they would gain economic and political control of Europe. Hitler was later to cite the document in his invective against the Jews in Mein Kampf. The principal conspirators in these various plots are Jews, Freemasons, political radicals and monarchist reactionaries and, of course, Jesuits and the Papacy. No one can skewer an ecclesiastic quite the way Eco can. Each group sees some other (or a temporary and convenient alliance of others) as the enemy behind the plots against them. But Eco does them all one better: He places a single forger and conspirator-for-hire at the center of all of these intrigues, one Captain Simone Simonini.

And so we are shown not only how historical events are the product of conspiracy and cabal, but that they are the result of the work of one evil genius who has had a hand in all of them! Bodies start to accumulate in the sewer beneath Simonini’s Paris apartment. In a note at the end of the book, Eco tells us that of the huge cast of characters who appeared in the novel, Simonini is the only fictional creation. The character of Simonini ties all the others together as we learn the reactionary political purpose of their exploitations of popular credulity. Eco has a Russian agent, who has commissioned a version of the Protocols from Simonini, explain the importance of always having an enemy to hate so that the discontent of the people is not directed against the czar:

“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. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal. That is why Christ was killed: he spoke against nature. You don’t love someone for your whole life---that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends…..But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he’s always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart.”

Simonini’s earnestness and his moral polemics are engaging and ironically amusing, but our pleasure in reading Eco’s gruesome tale of the dark and sensational undercurrent of an age is inevitably chastened, as it is intended to be, by our knowledge of what these hatreds wrought in the twentieth century. The Prague Cemetery gives us a doxology of the devil; it tells us the story of the power and longevity of a myth that thrives on ignorance, and it recounts that story in the argot of its liturgy. We recognize the turn of mind; we know too well the words.

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