Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Prague Cemetery - Umberto Eco

The main character—it would be too much to say he is the protagonist—of Umberto Eco's novel The Prague Cemetery is flatly despicable. This is not to suggest that Simone Simonini is an anti-hero; he is simply a hateful man, a murderer, misanthrope, misogynist, opportunist, glutton and forger, whose cynical masterwork, the racist slander of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is one of the bricks in the foundation of the greatest mass murder of the 20th Century.

The Prague Cemetery has particular relevance today, as crimes of hatred and the politics of bigotry are on the rise, for the theme of the novel, amidst all the riot of detail and incident, is not only hatred but the generation and circulation of the fictions that support and validate it.

Having said that, it is not easy to analyse the roots of Simonini's hatred, except that he is brought up at the table of a bigoted, autocratic grandfather in isolation from other children. This is enough to explain why he is repulsed by women and yet obsessed with food, and lacks any sympathy for other human beings. Simonini inherits his grandfather's antisemitism, but racial hatred is only one aspect of his contempt for humanity, which manifests itself in his willingness to betray and murder, preferably—though not always—by remote means. Eco illustrates not so much the banality of evil as how bland and matter-of-fact such evil is; how the absence of empathy is also an absence of self-reflection. Perhaps in response to this, Eco introduces an element of psychological depth in Simonini's attempt to puzzle out his apparent split-personality. One of his disguises, as the clerical Abbe Dalla Piccola takes on a narrative life of his own, but this suggests not so much psychological complexity as the way a hollow man like Simonini assumes and discards false identities at will.

With characteristic verve, Eco drives Simonini, the only fictional character, through a gallery of late 19th Century historical figures: soldiers, terrorists, spies, agitators, propagandists, extremists, anarchists, fraudsters and opportunists. It's something of a treat for the reader to check any of the monstrous and extraordinary events Eco describes in Wikipedia to find that they are all historically accurate. The plot therefore is somewhat episodic, and the whirl of conspiracies, plots, counter-plots, frauds and intrigues can be exhausting to follow. In all of this Simonini goes relatively unscathed, whereas a significant few of his associates end up dead in a sewers beneath his apartments. It is in the conflict between radicals and reactionaries, in the clash of regimes, that Simonini plies his trade: false intelligence, fabricated conspiracies. Eco is at his most deft in illustrating how these falsehoods are truly nothing new, but plagiarized, copied, re-circulated. The old lies need no innovation, only selective editing, because they merely reflect to the reader and validate what their prejudices and politics demand.

Antisemitism is Simonini's masterpiece, but without asserting equivalence we could also draw parallels with the anti-muslim hysteria of Donald Trump or homophobia. Forgeries and fictions, in The Prague Cemetery, stand very close together. Where hateful forgeries are joined with state power or ideologies that validate themselves through violence, they turn monstrous. We need no more illustrations of that. What we need are more complex, self-aware fictions like Umberto Eco's, which can help us begin to unravel this pernicious combination. That's the real puzzle at the heart of this thriller. If The Prague Cemetery lacks anything, it lacks a figure like William of Baskerville, a skeptical humanist who can help us unpick the ramifications of the story and express our confusion. Instead, we're left alone as readers to do this, which is how the work might educate and entertain but bring us no closer to its loathsome principal character.