In The Prague Cemetery, Umberto Eco creates a world of uprisings, war and murder, packed with an astonishingly wide range of literary and historical comparisons.
Eco explores 19th century European history from the unification of Italy, through the Paris Commune, to the Dreyfus Affair. Conspiracies – real, imagined and invented – are a major theme.
The novel’s central conceit is that one person – Simone Simonini – is present during all these events and that he collects and plagiarises material from a range of sources to concoct the notorious anti-Semitic document, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Little by little, Eco’s clear and unpretentious prose gives the reader a sense of being initiated into a world both vividly different from our own, but also intensely familiar. The author’s handling of historical events adds to the growing emotional power of the novel as it builds towards a shocking conclusion.
Eco uses real-life historical figures as characters. Only his protagonist, the enigmatic Simonini, is a creation of pure imagination. Simonini is a misanthropic, misogynistic, xenophobic, selfish and insensitive bigot. He is incapable of emotions other than greed and comes across as extremely socially conservative.
Some might sneer that Eco is taking few chances in making certain that the reader does not sympathise with his repellent central character. But actually he presents us with a psychologically compelling portrait of a damaged, callous anti-hero who is simultaneously aware of his own lack of humanity and his intensely “ordinary” status.
Those who know Eco’s work will recognise some of his classic plot devices. I was initially wary of the use of a split personality combined with amnesia story. But Eco’s brave shift from Simonini’s claustrophobic first-person monologue to the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator works. It is used to confront more deeply the question of whether guilt troubles Simonini’s conscience.
Some of the book’s most moving sections depict the Paris Commune and its destruction. While the events are familiar, the perspective is original and the depiction of blood-soaked counter-revolutionary terror is achieved with an astonishing power and economy of language that I have only come across extremely rarely.
The Prague Cemetery is a brilliant novel of formidable originality and startling contemporary relevance: as Eco reflects in the Afterword, Simonini “is still among us”. I urge you to read it!
A new book by Paul O’Brien