Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Prague Cemetary - Umberto Eco

Umberto Eco's latest novel, the most discussed releases last year along with 1Q84 ( in English), is the build up of the early 20th century document , The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which reveals the plots by Jewish people to dominate the world. This document, which confirmed later to be fake, supposed to have had a great influence on Hitler, apart from causing widespread political and religious repercussions across Europe. Umberto Eco, takes cue from this to build a case for his new novel, with reasonable success.

Using an unnamed narrator , a voice to be precise, who works through the notes and diaries of his protagonist, Simone Simonini a half-Italian half-French now in Paris. Chronologically going through his life from child hood till the last years of 19th Century, he builds from the various conspiracy theories and historical, political and literary events of Europe.

Simonini grew up in Piedmond, the kingdom in Italy bordering the French borders, under the guidance of his grand father, who blamed Jews for every bad things that happened on earth. He was taught by Priests who saw the bad influence of Jews on the Society every where. Growing up among the people obsessive about the growing influence of Jews in the world, he was mentally tuned to their way of thinking since early days. After graduating in law, he set up to work with a reputed lawyer, known for forgery and hideous practices. Developing his skills as an apprentice and applying them on his own superior, Simonini, arrived at the world as a master in forging documents and signatures.

Now working for the authorities, he was asked to accompany the ship carrying Alexander Dumas , on its way to Sicily, for a meeting with Garibaldi. Entrusted to do espionage and use his skills to the advantage of his superiors, spreading false rumours, eventually ensuring Garibaldi's advancement is halted from conquering Italy. After various activities of sabotage and attempts in Italy, he escaped to Paris, fearing for his life. It is at Paris, he grew into a full-time conspirator, working with various governments, living through the days of revolution as creator of fake evidences and documents leading to the famous document of Jewish conspiracy. Majority of the notes and diaries are about his adventures in these lines and his various assignments and his associations with people across the continent.

19th century Europe, from the rise and the eventual fall of Napoleon to the beheading of Luis XIV, the French Revolution, the Paris Commune, the Garibaldi, Communist Manifesto,was a century of great upheaval. Eco, build his tale through these historical events cleverly integrating and using them as the ingredient in his well researched book. The rise of anti-Semitism, was routed deep in the psyche of the people since early ages. 19th century saw it at its pinnacle, resulting in the creation of the so called fake Protocol, culminating with various wars. The subject is tricky the discussion and narration borders around the venomous terrain of hatred. Culture, literature, politics and religion are involved in the deep rooted conspiracy and every one from rulers to writers to artist were involved at various stages in building and nurturing these to their personal favour at various times. Building on the conspiracy theory, his protagonist see a hand of Jews in every thing that happened around the Christendom. The rise of Napoleon, the French revolution, Communism, raise of various sects in Christianity ( including freemasons) are thought and alleged to be the handiwork of the Jews. It was so much that under every act of sabotage, a mysterious hand of Jews were suspected. History, religion, politics and military intermix each playing their part in the overall flux and complexity in the geo-political structure of Europe.

The fine line of fiction versus reality is blur at many places. Most of the incidents are taken from the history and is colored with his insight and fictional skills. Umberto Eco, in one of hie interview says

The Prague Cemetery is a story in which all the characters except one—the main character—really existed. Even the hero’s grandfather, the author of a mysterious actual letter that triggered modern anti- Semitism, is historical.

The book is full of sumptuous description of foods at various Parisian restaurants. " I gave Simonini food instead of sex. And I gave it in enormous quantities. The names of the dishes are so beautiful, even from a linguistic point of view, that a lot of people fell in love with those foods." says Eco in this Interview. The book in general is full of crime and treachery as he moves from one to the other collaborating once and getting rid of them in the next moment. Umberto Eco also treats us to an interesting end with multiple possibilities, which I found pretty fascinating.

This might be one of the easiest novel of Umberto Eco to read. Despite the repetitive plot after plot of forgery, deceit and crime this is an engaging read. Despite the chronological narrative, he deploys few good structural complexities, with an introduction of his alter ego. The book is a fast gripping read with lot of actions all over. However, I wouldn't consider this to be better than Foucaults Pendulam, Name of the Rose or Islands of the Day before. Interesting and informative nonetheless.
The Prague Cemetery ( 2010)

Umberto Eco ( translated from Italian by Richard Dixon 2011)

Harvill Secker

437 Pages
Wiki Entry, Guardian, NY Times, Telegraph, Paris Review ( Interview) , Washington Post, Tablemag Interview, Open Letter Monthly


Miguel said...

It looks excellent! Eco has a gift for mixing erudition and scholarship with a gripping thriller. Have you read 'Foucault's Pendulum?'

Jayan Parameswaran said...

Miguel, Yes. I have read all the six novels of Eco and a handful of non-fictions.

Which is why, I think Foucaults Pendulam and Name of the rose is better than this.