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Prague's Cemetary, by Umberto Eco DomA Send a noteboard - 19/05/2011 07:47:01 PM
Europe of the late 19th century. The sparks of the French revolution and the Napoleonic wars have sets fires that won't easily die down, as the agony of the old aristocratic order seems interminable and chaotic and those who fight each other to replace it: revolutionaries of all ilk, anarchists and communists and proponent of every ideology ending in "ism" in this century of all the "isms" seem unable to deliver the citizens the promised bright tomorrows. Bitter, exhausted and disillusioned people, their mood dark and keener to look for the easy scapegoats and conspirators than to look for the true causes of the difficult birth of modernew states - and happy to recognize the cultprits in Dumas' Joseph Balsamo and Sue's The Wandering Jew. The excesses of emerging nationalism, still an unknwon and undomesticated wild beast, are rapidly replacing the old medieval prejudices, finding new motives to blame, stigmatize and hate all too often the very same people all over again. The cynism of the Rome, desperate to frighten its flock with the new faces of the Demon as it sees its influence escape it and the Papal States shrinks just add more fuel to the fires.

In a rundown antique store in a shaddy neighbourhood of Paris, the front for the den of a forger of documents, a narrator who seems to discover things as they unfold but who might be more of a puppet master than he appears invites the reader to look over the shoulder of the old man at a desk who's writing in his diary.

Meet Simon Simonini, half-Italian and half-French but a wholly abject, small and evil man, Umberto Eco's new protagonist, that he wanted to be "a direct hit to the stomach of the reader" and for whom he virtually challenges you not not to develop a visceral hatred, and a secret wish to see him die, if possible painfully. Hatred, the central and omnipresent theme of this novel – few pages in the book escape its pervasive presence. Simonini finds it simpler to define who he is by who and what he hates, and through the next 500 pages, most of which will consist of entries from his diary, he won't spare you any of his abhorent tirades of irrational execration, paranoia and circular, vicious logic. Germans, French, Italians – he hates them all. Women for him are less than animals, and more vicious beside – and he loathes his desires for their repellent forms, not that for rejecting them homosexuals will find more grace in his eyes. He can't seem to decide whether he hates more the Lutheran pigs or the hypocrite catholics, as both their priests are barely out of the beds of their whores or little boys that they go drink their wine, claim it to be the Lord's blood and hasten to go piss it - and the Jesuits are the worst scum of the lot. Free Masons are everywhere to feed a paranoia that's long been satiated, but if there's anyone Simonini can be said to loath above all else, it's Jews. Why? He can't really tell. It just is. For this man, hatred is the emotion most natural to the human species, and its love that should be seen as the aberration. If he knew you, Simonini would find a reason to hate you, or invent one that tomorrow he'll believe to have forever been there.

The man is an adept forger with an even higher opinion of his skills, and he's for sale to the highest bidder, or whoever's the first to grab him and force him to provide his services - and he's rarely short of customers or puppet masters. But Simonini has a memory full of holes, or he pretends to – one can never be too sure with this man. He can't seem to remember his recent past, or who's the mysterious Jesuit he believes lives in his house, who reads his diary while he sleeps, but whom he never managed to see. He's been told writing what he remembers might help break his amnesia.

With his new novel, Umberto Eco aims to deconstruct the mechanisms behind hatred. To do so, he brings the reader into a dark and often unpalatable journey through the sewers of the late 19th century literature, popular culture and socio-political milieus, all the while cleverly forging through his fiction an often improbable history to the text that doubles as the greatest and most damaging forgery or the century and the most infamous antisemitic text ever written, the Protocols of the Elder of Zion, purporting to be the minutes of a meeting revealing the extent of the Jewish conspiracy agains the world. Justifying pogroms, adding fuel to Adolf Hilter's anti-jewish arguments in Mein Kampf , the text, despite being established as a forgery since the mid-20s still today circulates as a true testimony, notably in the Middle-East.

As knowledgeable, astonishingly cultured as ever, in a text full of usually unattributed quotes or paraphrases from sources absorbed (and occasionally misundestood or twisted) by his protagonist (from Nietzsche to Louis-Ferdinand Céline to far more obscure and much less elevated intellects), Eco has adopted a narrative style that recalls russian dolls to build a plot that heavily recalls the melodramatic if here grotesquely darkened twists and turns, charades, aliases and disguises and secret passages of the French masters of roman-feuilletons like Alexandre Dumas (who even makes an appearance), Eugène Sue or Victor Hugo.

This is not Eco's best novel - and I say this as a huge fans of his previous ones, and it's certainly his most unpleasant to read thanks to his loathsome protagonist, surrounded by a secondary cast of almost as unpalatable characters: scheming Jesuits, charlatans, racist writers, terrorists, immoral henchmen of the secret polices of Europe, traitors – the scum of humanity, seen here in their most petty and pathetic form. Don't look for a super villain or the Devil and even less for hero, there's none in sight. Ever wished to see what a novel with only pathetic villains would look like? There it is.

The brilliance and main interest of the novel comes from the vivid description of the world in which the hatred that would shake the world in the 20th century picked pace and transformed themselves into modern antisemitism. The foreshadowing of the holocaust and the parallels to contemporary situations (Eco goes on at length in interviews about George Bush, the rise of anti-arabism in western pop culture and the forgeries surrounding Husseins's invented weapons of mass destructions) are often less subtle than one would come to expect of Umberto Eco, but there's not much subtlety to raw hatred. For all that, Eco succeeds in his demonstration of the often absurd but not less dangerous roots of hatred, and he can be saluted for having his readers take a new (or first) look at 19th century hate literature and how popular culture reflected it and inspired their form, devices that are alas all too much still with us today. In the days when Irak was invaded on a forged pretense when there was no shortage of real motives to remove the tyrant from power, and the hunt for Bin Laden was turned into a real-life roman-feuilleton unfolding on CNN for years, it's a not a bad thing to go back to this material, and understands its ropes.

But all this intelligence and relevance doesn't necessarily make a good novel. By Eco's standards, the plot is terribly simple, almost as thin as the ice in an Italian winter, and all too often predictable (but this novel isn't a thriller. You know right away Simonini is a forger, and you know somehow down the line the Protocols will appear in Russia). Providing no character to root for or identify with, Eco made it much harder to be amused or entertained by the rocambolesque adventures straight out of The Count of Monte-Cristo (but bringing you through historical events, from Garibaldi's campaign to the Commune and the Dreyfus affair) , and occasionally it falls a bit flat. Sometimes, you find yourself enjoying the non-fiction elements despite the fairly repetitive nature of the plot, always peppered with long, hateful and tedious, self-fed hateful tirades that become hard to cope with after a while. There isn't all that much to understand about Simonini, for all that Eco tried hard to involve the reader in the convoluted mystery of the invisble Jesuit who lives with him – and Eco tells you, rather than shows, a very great deal of what there is to know right in the opening chapter.. The novel also use a lot the material on the Protocols Eco had surveyed in one of his essays on literature, and recycles along the way quite a few of the tropes (masonic conspirators, satanistss and other fraudulous denizens of esoterism) of the masterpiece that was Foucault's Pendulum, with less success or interest this time.

There remains, and this saves the novel in a large part if not completely, the cleverness of Eco's own forgery (a device reminescent of the one on which he built Foucault's Pendulum, and truth and untruth being for a long time a pet topic of his semiologic studies), that unlike the document at the center of its plots dares speak its name by calling itself a novel, a novel written as beautifully as one expects of its author, and this time largely free of the difficult, savant vocabulary that made his previous efforts a more demanding read.

This isn't in its details a viable hypothesis on the origins of the Protocols, as is made rather obvious from the start by the way Eco fills the undocumented historical holes with improbable inventions of his own nodding to Sue and Dumas (and he chose very famous iconic scenes and characters at that, to make it more easy to decode, No final coup de théâtre this time around). That didn't stop quite a few reviewers from taking it at the first degree and turning the novel into some "Da Vinci Code to amuse undergraduates". Rather, this is a scholarly survey of the sources, culture, socio-political climate in which a text like the Protocols surfaced, with the forged history becoming a frame story, as if Eco was telling us a dark tale. Give or take a few "utilities" he identifies at the end, Eco purports only his main protagonist is fictional, though given the liberties he took, such as transforming an invented person in a very famous fraud case into a flesh and bones character, it makes his claim in the author's note a bit disappoingly (given the trust his readers place in Eco the scholar) dubious. Had I not read on the fraud two years ago, I would have taken Eco at his word, and I can't help but wonder how much else is true but quite twisted like this (which is perfectly fine for a novel, I just didn't like that Eco's author note suggesting otherwise).

Fun at times, a bit tedious in others, intellectually challenging in a good way every other page, forcing you to go through extremely unsavoury and depressing material and leaving you with no definitive answers and a resolutely pessimistic outlook on human nature and its failure to remember or learn from the mistakes of the past, the novel is best taken in small bites and sometimes leaves you with a desire to bath. Eco had considered turning it into an essay, and it remains for me an open question whether that may have been a better choice, and how well he succeeded at turning his years of research into a novel. Depressing and unpleasant for sure - with a subject matter that sometimes seems to clash with the literary games and the form imitated from 19th century entertainment literature by Eco, it's still very often a fascinating read for all that, at least for those willing to stare human evil right in the face rather than invent monsters and Devils to cope with them.

The English translation of the novel is due out in Fall 2011, and comes augmented with tons of (historical) engravings in the classic fashion of roman-feuilletons.
This message last edited by DomA on 19/05/2011 at 08:18:57 PM
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Prague's Cemetary, by Umberto Eco - 19/05/2011 07:47:01 PM 6758 Views
I do look forward to it. - 19/05/2011 11:23:47 PM 644 Views
Re: I do look forward to it. - 19/05/2011 11:53:40 PM 637 Views
"Cemetery", not "Cemetary". - 29/05/2011 04:42:49 AM 668 Views

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