The Prague Cemetery: a forger-spy searches for truth

Umberto Eco examines the disastrous consequences of mass-credulity and self-deception in this ambitious but ultimately flawed novel.
Umberto Eco, author of The Prague Cemetery, a story told through a series of diary entries written by a spy with a penchant for disguises in Paris in the late 1890s. Miguel Medina / AFP
Umberto Eco, author of The Prague Cemetery, a story told through a series of diary entries written by a spy with a penchant for disguises in Paris in the late 1890s. Miguel Medina / AFP

In Umberto Eco's novel Baudolino, the protagonist reflects on his ability to make people - including himself - believe anything that he says: "When you say something you've imagined, and others then say that's exactly how it is, you end up believing it yourself." Eco's ambitious but ultimately flawed new novel, The Prague Cemetery, takes as its subject the disastrous consequences of mass-credulity and self-deception. Set in the 19th century, amid the epic European political developments of that age, the novel recounts the life of Simone Simonini, a forger and a spy - and one of the most unpleasant fictional characters ever created.

The narrative is told through a series of diary entries written by Simonini in Paris in the late 1890s. He has undergone a severe memory loss due to an unremembered traumatic experience. In the diary, Simonini attempts to reconstruct his life. The reader learns of his years in Turin as a forger of wills; his recruitment as a spy by the Piedmontese government; his adventures in Naples in 1860 where he meets and spies on Garibaldi's invading army; his remove to Paris, where he informs on the members of the Paris Commune in 1870; and his later involvement in the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s.

Interwoven with these journal entries is a set of mysterious, querulous notes by a second character, Abbe Dalla Piccola, which comment on Simonini's narrative and question its veracity. Simonini is fearfully unsure of how Dalla Piccola has access to his diary and speculates that he may be living secretly in the same apartment. He finds a cleric's outfit, a wig and a false beard in his cupboard, leading him to wonder whether he and Dalla Piccola are the same person. This air of confusion and incipient madness feeds into the climactic final passages of the novel, which detail Simonini's efforts to spread conspiracy theories about Freemasonry and, on a horribly larger scale, about Jewish people.

In his recent book of lectures, Confessions of a Young Novelist, Eco has written of how his novels characteristically offer themselves to be read on two levels. First, there is the excitement and drama of the action and events, which may be enjoyed (or not) for their own sake; second, there is what he calls a "metanarrative", where a reader may detect and interpret deeper theoretical themes existing in ironic interplay with the surface narrative. These themes are usually connected with Eco's interests as a theorist of literary texts - in which role he has written with considerable distinction, intelligence, and influence for the past 50 years (for far longer, indeed, than he has written novels; hence his playful description of himself as a "young" novelist).

Eco's major theme as a theorist has been the question of how readers may interpret texts with imaginative responsibility - that is, how they may respond with a kind of creative intelligence that does not fall into what Eco calls "over-interpretation". In Eco's first, and most famous, novel, The Name of the Rose, these concerns are dramatised in the narrative of the monk-detective William of Baskerville, who interprets signs and clues in order to solve a murder. Eco's second novel, Foucault's Pendulum, examines the dangers of over-interpretation in a narrative that (like The Prague Cemetery) focuses on conspiracy theories. More recently, the semi-autobiographical novel The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana shows an amnesiac narrator trying to recollect his life by interpreting the wide variety of texts, both highbrow and popular, that he remembers reading.

The Prague Cemetery combines many of the strengths of Eco's previous novels. It shows the ease and plausibility of historical reconstruction displayed in The Name of the Rose and Baudolino; it generates a high level of dramatic excitement out of subject matter involving conspiratorial plots, as did Foucault's Pendulum; and, like The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, it makes telling narrative use of the confusions and sudden recollections of a narrator who is struggling to manage a faulty memory. In addition, it assimilates Eco's interests in over-interpretation and complex narrative techniques into a subject of greater historical importance than anything he has previously treated in his fiction: the development of widespread, extreme anti-Semitism.

Early in his diary, Simonini suggests that he should be considered not in regard to his actions but to his "passions". These passions are a set of hatreds for every nationality and race he encounters. It is clear that they emerge out of his total detachment and withdrawal from society, even when he finds himself at the heart of great historical events.

Eco has often shown an interest in conveying isolated consciousnesses in his fiction (see, for instance, the humanely inquisitive but marooned protagonist of The Island of the Day Before, and the narrator of The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, who becomes trapped in his memories as the novel progresses). Although The Prague Cemetery powerfully evokes the bustle and claustrophobia of 19th-century city life, Simonini is always an intensely isolated figure, given to disguising himself ("the thought that people had no idea who I really was gave me a sense of superiority. I had a secret"). Through his work as a forger and spy, he develops a love of secrecy for its own sake. He sees in the world a widespread "desire for conspiracy" that he ascribes (in a rare moment of psychological insight) to people's wish to find a "culprit" for "misfortunes" that no one believes "are attributable to their own shortcomings".

One of the achievements of the novel is the way in which it charts Simonini's descent from his calculated falsifying of reality in his work as a forger of wills and a spy to his loss of a sense of reality later in his life as he becomes obsessed with his own conspiracy theories. Simonini knows well that a conspiracy is most successful when it is a total, rather than a partial, fabrication ("if a [forged] document is to be convincing, it must be created ex novo"); and as the novel progresses he becomes a victim of his own adeptness at misinformation. Simonini becomes so entranced by his own anti-Semitic forgeries that they foster and strengthen his hatred of Jewish people.

In his essays, Eco has written revealingly of the complex ways in which anti-Semitism developed in the 19th century through a combination of the deliberate forging of texts and misreadings of fictional texts. The Prague Cemetery brilliantly dramatises these events. Its formidably complicated plot, with its dark ironies (such as when Simonini becomes incensed when one of his anti-Semitic forgeries is plagiarised), well conveys the labyrinthine processes of willed deception and malign credulity that characterised the growth of 19th- and 20th-century anti-Semitism.

As the novel moves towards its conclusion, and Simonini's sense of reality becomes less and less secure, his narrative becomes hallucinatory, moving in sudden illogical turns, as he tries to recapture his efforts to spread extreme conspiracies about Freemasonry. One detects the influence of Gérard de Nerval's novel, Sylvie - about which Eco has written admiringly - in the dreamlike quality of this latter part of the novel. Indeed, as it becomes steadily harder to distinguish reality from delusion in Simonini's account, one senses that Eco is attempting to make a more general point about the nature of fictional texts: namely, to what extent can a novel be said to contain "truth"? In Confessions of a Young Novelist, Eco argued that a novel is most valuable and truthful when it represents fictional characters with whom we may sympathise. Eco contends that "our view of the actual world is as imperfect as the view that fictional characters have of their world"; fictional characters are in this sense "supreme examples of the 'real' human condition". In this way, Eco argues, we may "identify" with fictional characters.

And yet, it is the very imperfection of Simonini's vision of the world, his delusions, and his deep hatreds, that prevents the reader from identifying with him. Furthermore, depth of character in this novel is often substituted by sudden, impassioned declarations of distress and discomfort ("I have a fever, I fear, my forehead is burning"; "I'm frightened"; "my mind is confused").

The extraordinary opening pages of the novel, in which Siminoni lists the objects of his hatred in ferocious detail, create an unforgettably powerful fictional voice and consciousness. But this immediate source of the novel's great strength is also its underlying flaw. The very moments when Eco most successfully conveys the strange illogic of racial prejudice also ensure that the reader resists the protagonist and never feels sympathy for him.

It may seem ungrateful and even unfair to criticise Eco for this failure, considering the restraints that the nature of Siminoni's malevolence places on the author's presentation of him. Eco was surely aware that the effectiveness of this presentation would prevent the reader from feeling sympathy for Siminoni. But it is also likely that Eco would acknowledge what is lost in this failure: sympathy's role in enabling a fictional character to represent the "real" human condition. Ultimately, this loss represents a flaw in the novel, in spite of its great ambition and power.

Matthew Peters is a freelance critic. His reviews have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, the Boston Globe, and Essays in Criticism.

Published: November 11, 2011 04:00 AM


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