The Prague Cemetery: A Novel by Umberto Eco; translated by Richard Dixon (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011. 464 pp)

Umberto Eco was born January 5, 1932 and is a Knight Grand Cross of the Italian Republic. He was the founder of the Dipartimento di Comunicazione at the University of San Marino, an Honorary Fellow of Kellogg College at the University of Oxford, and is best known for his novels The Name of the Rose and The Prague Cemetery. He was also President of the Scuola Superiore di Studi Umanistici at the University of Bologna, and a member of the Accademia dei Lincei. In addition to fiction, he has also written both academic texts on literary theory and children’s books. He died in 2016.

Richard Dixon lives and works in Italy. He has translated works from Umberto Eco, Roberto Calasso, and Giacomo Leopardi. His translation of The Prague Cemetery was short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012.

Fascism Is in

I try my best to avoid political discourse on this blog. For starters, I don’t claim to be well-informed. Secondly, politics are pretty divisive in case you hadn’t noticed.

Having said that, this election season is a different animal. Republicans and Democrats alike are uniting in their distaste for Donald Trump. Aside from criticisms about his lack of political experience, pundits from all corners of politics draw comparisons between Trump and some of the worst dictators the world has ever known.

Granted, such comparisons become easier when Trump retweets quotes from Mussolini. But beyond such low hanging fruit, Trump’s campaign centers on black-and-white positions, pushing certain groups into the dreaded position of “other.” Whether he believes what he says or it’s just a political ruse, stoking such a fire can be dangerous. You are playing with fire after all.

With proto-fascism emerging as a societal talking point, Umberto Eco’s novel, The Prague Cemetery provides relevance to the national conversation.

Quasi-historical, the novel focuses on the many ways in which people create an “other” to foster and cultivate hatred.

The History of Simone Simonini

The novel’s main character—and only fictitious construct—is Simone Simonini. Raised by his anti-Semitic grandfather, the Italian-born Simonini studies law and becomes an expert forger. His skills raise suspicion of the Italian government, but the powers-that-be decide Simonini can be useful to the crown as a spy.

Over the course of the novel, Simonini meets many historical figures and ultimately fashions a plan to forge a master document based on multiple sources that ultimately becomes “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the famous fictional document claiming that the Jews were plotting world domination.

Along the way, Simonini stops at nothing to preserve his person. Murder and a multitude of other sins form his toolkit.

Structuring the Other

Outside of the plot, Eco manufactures an intriguing story through structure. The novel unfolds as a series of diary entries, with the narrator/reader operating as a character in the text.

“Nor should the Reader expect the Narrator to reveal, to his surprise, that this figure is someone already named, since (this being the very beginning of the story) no one has yet been named. And the Narrator himself does not yet know who the mysterious writer is, proposing to find this out (together with the Reader) while both of us look on inquisitively and follow what he is noting down on those sheets of paper” (4).

Secondly, Eco establishes the psychology of his main character. Early in the diary entries, Simonini recounts an experience with a psychologist that represents the genesis of the diary. The psychologist, as it appears, suggests Simonini keeps an account of his life.

“That is what I have decided, with some reluctance, to keep this diary, writing down my past as I gradually bring it back to mind, including the most insignificant details, until (what did Froïde say?) the traumatizing element reemerges. But I will do it by myself. And I want to recover by myself, not end up in the hands of doctors who treat lunatics” (45).

After long nights with pen and paper, Simonini awakes to discover a mysterious other also contributes to his diary. This second character, Abbé Dalla Piccola, narrates a separate story expanding upon the devilry of the freemasons as an “other.”

“Please understand that the Narrator is himself puzzled. Abbé Dalla Piccola seems to reawaken only when Simonini needs a voice of conscience to accuse him of becoming distracted and to bring him back to reality, otherwise he appears somewhat forgetful. To be frank, if it were not for the fact that these pages refer to events that actually took place, such alternations between amnesic euphoria and dysphoric recall might seem like a device of the Narrator” (170).

The Nature of Hatred

For many, The Prague Cemetery will be a difficult read. The nastiness of the main character and the sheer hatred of certain groups operates at a high level of discord with modern society.

But this fact represents Eco’s point. Hatred is a universal human experience against which we all need to fight.

“The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that’s abnormal. That is why Christ was killed: he spoke against nature. You don’t love someone for your whole life—that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends…But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he’s always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart” (342).

Our natural disposition is to create an “other,” and enemy. The resonance of Donald Trump among certain Americans connects to this concept. When job growth seems to stagnate and external threats loom in the form of ISIS and North Korea, the tendency for many is to create an “other.” The resolution of such beliefs is to close the borders, band together, and when all else fails, murder the “other” with bullets stained in pig’s blood.

For this reason, The Prague Cemetery remains relevant.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

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