The Prague Cemetery

  • Umberto Eco
  • Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • 445 pp.

In a novel stuffed with characters and strange events from history, an accomplished forger struggles to discover who he really is.

Reviewed by Tom Glenn

Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga in Italian), published a year ago in Europe, is already a best seller in Italy, Spain, Argentina and Mexico. It shares with Eco’s earlier novels, The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum, daunting complexity and learnedness. Eco mixes bizarre history, all true, with the story of a man who is trying to discover who he really is. And although the subject of the book is deadly serious, picaresque comedy is everywhere.

In a sort of appendix at the end of the book, called “Useless Learned Explanations,” Eco tells us that all the major characters in the book, of which there are easily a hundred, are people who actually lived; only the protagonist is fictional. Even he is a collage of several people, apparently real. So along the way we meet Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Giuseppe Mazzini, Camillo Benso di Cavour, Sigmund Freud and many other lesser known personages. The major events of the book — including the unification of Italy, the Dreyfus Affair and the Franco-Prussian war — form the background for the career of a forger who has started a diary to reconstruct his failing memory.

The name of the central character, Simone Simonini, is already a sly joke that may be lost on readers of the English text. The given name is the equivalent of “Simon” in English. The surname means “little Simons,” and the protagonist was known in his childhood as Simonino, “little Simon.” The name, in short, stutters on the page, without being spoken. We learn Simonini’s story in three voices, each with its own style and its own font: the Narrator, who is reading a disjointed diary; Captain Simonini, the principal writer of the diary; and the Abbé Dalla Piccola, who contributes to the diary and may be a figment of Simonini’s dissociative identity disorder, popularly called split personality.

Simonini begins the diary in 1897, at the age of 67, because he doesn’t remember his past. He can’t recall ever having loved anyone but knows that he hates Jews. Within a page we learn that he considers Germans “the lowest conceivable level of humanity.” A few pages later we are told that the French are “lazy, swindling, resentful, jealous, proud beyond all measure.” The Italians, of which he is one, aren’t much better — the writer, a Piemontese, harbors a suspicion that Romans are really Semitic. He loathes Masons, despises Jesuits (“Jesuits are Masons dressed up as women”), and he can’t abide women. Although homosexuals horrify him, he is nevertheless asexual, despite a brief hint that carnal knowledge of children might appeal to him. “[A] salivating mouth,” he tells us, “is better than an erection.” His major pleasure in life, in other words, is eating.

Simonini’s lust for food spices the narrative. Descriptions of gourmet delights emerge as he meets his victims and benefactors in favorite restaurants. Even the Narrator engages in singing the praises of dishes such as agnolotti alla piemontese, fricassée de poulet Marengo and les mayonnaises de vollaie. Simonini’s penance takes the form of forcing himself to eat dull meals.

His actions, which he slowly pulls from his memory as he writes, are as repugnant as his biases. Primarily a forger but adept at disguises and spying, he schemes unsuccessfully to thwart Italian patriots in the mid-1800s, works against the Communes in Paris, forges documents to bring down the Masons and incriminate Dreyfus, and writes early drafts of his masterpiece that would eventually be called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Collaborating with Italian, French, German and Russian reactionaries and monarchists, he murders a handful of men and one woman and is complicit in the deaths of many more. Those who benefit from his talents see to it that his income is never sparse.

Despite it all, Simonini and his cohorts are funny. Early on Simonini tells us that “women are just a substitute for the solitary vice, except that you need more imagination.” In Paris he comes across a woman “with a bonnet ... which covered half her face — and a good thing, too.” Later he observes that “Prevention is best — it’s better to punish first, before any crimes are committed.” A man drunk from absinthe shouts that he is not drunk and then “was so pleased with himself that he slid under the table.” Late in the book, the Russian bigot Pyotr Rachkovsky explains that “You have to break the law before you can serve it properly.” The unhinged, self-serving logic consistently brings laughter even in the darkest moments of the story.

And dark it is. The cemetery of the title is the location of clandestine meetings of Jewish leaders plotting to achieve world dominance, the subject of Simonini’s master forgery. He drafts various versions of it through the last three quarters of the book, basing it on a satire by Maurice Joly and the antisemitic fiction Hermann Goedsche. The final version is produced in Russian at the behest of Rachkovsky, who publishes it as an authentic document to alert all that the Jews have constructed a blueprint to take over the world.

The Protocols of the Elders of Zion is a real document whose author is unknown. Although repeatedly shown to be a forgery, its infamous text is used, even today, as a tool to arouse hatred of Jews. Hitler used it as one pretext for the Holocaust. A check of the Internet shows that it is currently available in dozens of editions, even a free PDF annotated text.

What the reader ends up with is almost history masquerading as fiction. And yet, it works. The mystery of the relationship between Simonini and Dalla Piccola propels the reader through the unseemly recounting of the hero’s crimes and his arrival at The Protocols. Eco’s style, as rendered in English by Richard Dixon, is an admixture of Victorian prose, reminiscent of Dickens, and the roguish language of Thomas Mann. The whole is helped along by copies of 60 19th-century black-and-white engravings that illustrate the text. I felt as though I were reading an original edition from the late 19th century. The condemnation of The Protocols is effective because the text never once speaks ill of them; it lets their evil speak for itself.

Excellent writing aside, this is not an easy book. The cast of characters alone would strain a photographic memory. The polylingual Simonini, using endless disguises and forgeries, flits through so many different adventures that it’s hard to keep them straight. But like a fine meal, the book should be enjoyed at a leisurely pace, with pauses here and there to savor a licentious act or two. And the surprise ending, only hinted at, is indeed a just dessert.

Writer Tom Glenn has worked in seven languages. One of his novels (unpublished) derives in part from the writings of Thomas Mann.

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