Friday, March 4, 2016

Umberto Eco: "The Prague Cemetery"

Umberto Eco died last month. In remembering him, I decided to read The Prague Cemetery(published 2011). The book is full of fascinating illustrations, using etchings and other contemporary material from Eco's collection. I had the feeling that the author's imagination was stimulated by these images; I have reproduced several of them below.
Actual French journal from time of Dreyfus case.
(From The Prague Cemetery).

Normally I would write about the very large number of food descriptions in the book. The main narrator LOVES food, and describes many meals including French cuisine, Italian and Sicilian cooking. Food of the richest and poorest classes of society illustrate their fortunes and misfortunes. Equally interesting was Eco's vast knowledge of the city of Paris in the 19th century -- the streets, the sewers, the restaurants, the neighborhoods, and more. These descriptions were somewhat spoiled for me by the revolting antisemitism and visciousness of the central character and narrator, Simonini.

Here is an example of Simonini's love of fine French food and its setting in 19th century Paris -- the reader is expected to know the names of the dishes in French:
"The first place I wanted to indulge myself was Le Grand Véfour, in the arcades of the Palais-Royal. Though it was extremely expensive, I had heard it praised even in Turin, and Victor Hugo apparently used to go there to eat breast of mutton with haricot beans. The other place that had immediately seduced me was the Café Anglais, on the corner of rue de Gramont and boulevard des Italiens. It had once been a restaurant for coachmen and servants and now served le tout Paris at its tables. There I discovered pommes Anna, écrevisses bordelaises, mousses de volaille, mauviettes en cerises, petites timbales à la Pompadour, cimier de chevreuil, fonds d’artichauts à la jardinière and champagne sorbets. The mere mention of these names makes me feel that life is worth living." (The Prague Cemetery, Kindle Locations 2196-2202)
At the young-people's hostel.
The simultaneously racist and gourmet Simonini also writes about the terrible food of poor people when he is forced to deal with them. For example, this description of a hostel for poor students:
"As you entered, you were hit by the asphyxiating stench of rancid grease and mildew, and of soup that had been cooked and recooked over the years, leaving tangible traces on those greasy walls— though there was no apparent reason for this, since you had to bring your own food with you, and the house offered wine and plates only." (Kindle Locations 4771-4773)
Or in another passage, where he is entertaining a Russian business acquaintance (more about the business later):
"With a feeling of relief I invited Golovinsky to dinner at Paillard, on the corner of rue de la Chaussée d’Antin and boulevard des Italiens. Expensive, but superb. Golovinsky clearly appreciated the poulet à l’archiduc and the canard à la presse. But someone who came from the Steppes may well have tucked into choucroute with the same enthusiasm. It would have cost me less, and I could have avoided the waiters’ suspicious looks at a customer who masticated so noisily." (Kindle Locations 5717-5720)
Like most of Eco's books The Prague Cemetery is terribly complicated, and made even more challenging by the expectation that the reader would be familiar with a fairly high level of detail about the liberation of Italy, Napoleon III, the 1871 war between France and Germany, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus affair, and other events of that era, as well as food names in original languages. 

Further, a Jewish reader like me needs a thick skin to handle all the antisemitic stereotypes expressed by Simonini. Eco makes Simonini clearly despicable as well as self-absorbed -- including his utter lack of principles in all the political sides he pretends to take, his hatred of Jews, and several murders that he committed or claimed to have committed in the course of his unsavory life. Some of the illustrations are especially offensive -- the one at right is moderate in comparison. Still, it's a hard book to read.

Umberto Eco-style details add to the challenges. There are at least three narrators, mostly unreliable. In particular, the reader has to deal with the ambiguity of identity of Simonini and his double, a Catholic Abbé. Maybe the Abbé is just another character or maybe Simonini has some kind of split-personality disorder or maybe something else that I missed, though it's all finally explained towards the end (if you believe the explanation). In the final chapter of the book, Eco explains that Simonini is the only fictition of the book: all other events and characters are, he says, closely based on actual history. 

The character/narrator Simonini was ambiguously both Italian and French, having been born in a region on the border that was alternately a possession of each nationality. His profession was being a spy, a double agent, and above all a forger of documents. Among his invented documents he specialized in anti-Jewish and anti-Masonic ones, including a secret meeting of Jewish elders in the Prague cemetery (hence the title); a precursor to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This fictitious character then wrote the actual Protocols (which he was selling to the Russian he entertained at dinner). He also forged the papers that incriminated the innocent Dreyfus, and many others.

Obviously the way this fictitious character ties together many of the antisemitic inventions of the century is Eco's clever way of exploring the historic circumstances that created twentieth-century antisemitism, and continues to feed twenty-first century antisemitism. The play between real history and fiction is full of irony and fraught with Eco's knowledge of what happened to Simonini's creations after the end of the book.

Reviewer Rebecca Goldstein wrote the following in the New York Times:
"Umberto Eco’s latest fiction, 'The Prague Cemetery,' is choreographed by a truth that is itself so strange a novelist need hardly expand on it to produce a wondrous tale. Eco forthrightly explains that all his major characters but one are historical figures; but a reader unaware of how close to the truth Eco is hewing might be inclined to award him more points for inventiveness than he earns. This is not to say that Eco doesn’t earn points for inventiveness, nor that a novel can’t succeed on other grounds. It is just to say that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction." Umberto Eco and the Elders of Zion, NYT, November 18, 2011.

The historic "reality" reflected in the book isn't really the main key to what Eco was trying to do, I think. His handling of the details of life (like food, streets, military events, etc.) that would resonate with twenty-first century readers and his constant anticipation of the consequences of the ideas he explores make The Prague Cemetery a very complicated historical novel. All historical novels invent characters, actions, and circumstances to stand against the "real" historical background; this one does it in an exceptional way.

Note: this is also posted at, my other blog.

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