News about Umberto Eco

12.11.2011 - ‘The Prague Cemetery’ takes you on a madman’s tour

By Kevin Canfield

Simone Simonini, the appalling figure at the heart of Umberto Eco’s historical novel about propaganda, fear and ignorance, can’t stand what he sees on the horizon of his adopted home city.

“Paris isn’t what it used to be,” he remarks, “ever since that pencil sharpener, the Eiffel Tower, has been sticking up in the distance, visible from every angle.”It’s 1897, and the French capital’s newest architectural monument is just one of several things agitating the elderly, Italian-born Simonini. Consumed by hate and seemingly stricken by mental illness — he can’t tell whether he has a housemate or multiple personalities — Simonini is lonely and paranoid.

And yet, as he reveals in a series of eventful journal entries that make up the core of “The Prague Cemetery,” he’s also proud to have spent decades preying upon his fellow man’s basest instincts. Looking back on his glory days, Simonini realizes he’s been vile — and he loved every minute of it.

Seeking to illustrate how much societal ill can be wrought by a clever, well-connected and wholly despicable mercenary, Eco places his antihero at a series of key events in 19th-century Europe.

After his youth in Turin, where he’s brainwashed by a ferociously anti-Semitic grandfather, Simonini studies law before working with a notary who makes most of his money by providing scam artists with forged documents.

Simonini learns to navigate the black market, and soon he manages to get his boss thrown in prison. For good measure, he cooks up a fake contract that allows him to assume control of his employer’s business.

This puts Simonini in a position to spread his poisonous view of the world, and he finds a receptive audience. His crafty penmanship fosters political violence across Europe.

Whether his mission involves extraordinary events (the unification of Italy, the Franco-Prussian War) or garden-variety crime (the murder of a onetime business partner), Simonini is happy to do his part to keep population growth in check.

As he rationalizes it, “True, there are plagues and suicides, capital punishment, those who challenge each other to duels and who get pleasure from riding at breakneck speed through woods and meadows. I’ve even heard of English gentlemen who go swimming in the sea and, of course, drown. But it is not enough. Wars are the most effective and natural way imaginable for stemming the increase in human numbers.”

Meanwhile, Simonini manages to place himself in a central role of one scandal after another. His forgeries are a key component of what would come to be known as the Taxil Hoax — an elaborate yarn about devil worship — and he also plays an important part in the Dreyfus Affair, in which a Jewish soldier from France was framed and imprisoned for sharing military secrets with the Germans.

Eventually, Simonini falls in with a series of wealthy sponsors who want proof that a group of powerful Jews has hatched a plan to rule the world. As great a bigot as there is, even Simonini can’t talk himself into believing that such a conspiracy exists, but he’s nonetheless pleased to invent documents to this effect.

And so he invents a scenario that has Jewish holy men meeting in a Prague cemetery, where they draw up a plot to take over banks, governments, the media and just about every other bit of contemporary life. He dubs the text the Prague Protocols, but it will soon become better known as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the infamous phony text that would later dupe Adolf Hitler, among others.

Simonini, Eco writes in an afterword, is “(t)he only fictitious character in this story.” Yet just two paragraphs later, he hedges on this point: “But on reflection, even Simone Simonini, although in effect a collage, a character to whom events have been attributed that were actually done by others, did in some sense exist. Indeed, to be frank, he is still among us.”

It would be comforting to think Eco is wrong on this point, but alas, he isn’t. Whether his readers want to spend more than 400 pages in the company of a delusional madman is another matter. Simonini’s as disgraceful as they come, and those who feel the need to bond with a narrator will be instantly put off by this novel.

But “The Prague Cemetery” isn’t trying to make us feel better about ourselves. It’s meant to remind us of the dangers of complacency and credulousness. It’s meant to be unsettling. And by that measure, it’s a huge success.

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