Wednesday, May 02, 2012
book review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
On one level the story is about the nature of conspiracy and how easy it is to invent, embellish and sell to various secret services a lie to further political or personal ends. But on another level it is an insight into what can make someone spend their life hating a section of society and how that hatred can drive them to extreme acts.
The book is written as a series of diary entries by Captain Simone Simonini, a man who has become so well versed at lying he struggles to remember the truth about himself. As he works through his life story you discover a tale of someone that was taught from birth to hate the Jews and distrust and despise those things that he did not understand.
As a result an Antisemitism mingles at moments with other causes, including a fairly regular dig at the Free Masons. But the main character, who is a forger of wills for his day job and an expert at delivering aged documents to help whatever cause he believes in and will reward him, is someone that you don not like. There is little to admire in a man that is so full of hate combined with ignorance imparted to him by his grandfather. Despite moving from Italy to Paris the man continues to see life through a filtered lens that means even when friendships could be cultivated with Jews he snubs that possibility out.
The title of the book comes from the masterpiece conspiracy put together by Simonini where he describes a meeting of Jewish leaders in a cemetery where they plot to take over the world. Even those he tries to pedal the document to can see through the forgery but that doesn't stop it being plagiarised and becoming part of the cultural background of the late 19th century world that Simonini moves in.
He is prepared to kill, lie and steal to get what he wants and even in the time period the story is set against he sees some success for his efforts. The Dreyfus Affair, where a Jewish officer was wrongly accused of pasisng military secrets to the Germans, is a case where proof is lacking but antisemitism manages to imprison an innocent man.
But of course it is what will happen much later with the lies described as fact in the Prague Cemetery document that will sow such hatred in the 20th century.
This is a very ambitious book that covers a fair amount of ground. In parts it seemed to become bogged down and the diary style was sometimes a weakness in that it provided mainly a one-sided view of events.
You are left thinking about the scale of the deception at the conclusion of the book but a bit shaved off would have got the reader more quickly to that moment.