Friday, 10 May 2019

Book Review: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco
When life doesn’t take the expected turn, it’s often easier to come up with the idea of a conspiracy than to search for the real cause of events. Especially misanthropists (but not only they) are prone to blaming others for all and nothing. They need a scapegoat and who is better suited for it than the weak, be it an individual or a whole group like the Jewish minority spattered all across Europe. In The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco a man in his late sixties looks back on his life as unscrupulous informer and forger of documents whose every action has been marked by the blind hatred against Jews, Freemasons and Jesuits that he contracted in his youth. Writing down his adventures, it slowly dawns on him that he has an alter ego, a Jesuit priest of all things, who got active in the periods that he can’t remember…

Umberto Eco was born in Alessandria, Piedmont, Italy, in January 1932. After high school he studied Philosophy and Literature at the University of Turin where he then worked as a lecturer along with a job as cultural editor for the public Italian broadcaster RAI. As from the 1960s, he was non-fiction editor of the renowned publishing house Bompiani, wrote columns for several periodicals and taught as professor specialised in Semiotics, Media Culture and Anthropology at different universities in Italy as well as abroad. The major part of Umberto Eco’s literary work is non-fiction although he also wrote three children’s books and gained worldwide fame above all for his novels, notably for The Name of the Rose (Il nome della rosa: 1980) that was his successful debut. The novels Foucault’s Pendulum (Il pendolo di Foucault: 1988), The Island of the Day Before (L'isola del giorno prima: 1994), Baudolino (2000), The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (La misteriosa fiamma della regina Loana: 2004), The Prague Cemetery (Il cimitero di Praga: 2010), and Numero Zero (2015) followed. The author is rumoured to have been nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature several times. Umberto Eco died in Milan, Lombardy, Italy, in February 2016.

In the opening, the Narrator of The Prague Cemetery declares to have stumbled across the diary that Simone Simonini started in his junk shop near Place Maubert in Paris on 24 March 1897. In it the elderly expat from Turin, who fears to be losing his mind because he can’t remember the past day, reviews his life much like doctor “Froïde”, one of the psychiatrists whom he met in a restaurant, would have advised him to. He recounts his childhood and youth in Turin that he passed surrounded by servants in his grandfather’s house, but with only the old man and his respective Jesuit tutors for real company. During those years, he adopted their blind hatred against Jews and Freemasons and developed in addition a deep hostility against the Catholic Church, notably the Jesuit order, as well as a lifelong loathing for the female sex. After his law studies and his grandfather’s death, which left him destitute, he accepted a job with a dishonest notary who soon recognised his exceptional talent for forging any handwriting. Before long, he outdid his teacher and schemed against him to seize his business along with his fortune. In 1860, the Piedmontese secret service recruited him and he began to pass on information pieced together from books, hearsay and his own imagination to show through a reunion at the old Jewish cemetery of Prague how Jews aided by Freemasons and Jesuits tried to subjugate the entire world. After having spied on Garibaldi preparing the unification of Italy in Sicily, he was sent into exile in Paris where he soon began to work for the French authorities. From this point, his alter ego Abbé Dalla Piccola takes the pen to fill ever more often the blanks in Simonini’s memory that include complex intrigues and perfidious murders…

The author’s point in writing the historical novel titled The Prague Cemetery was to reveal the intellectual climate that served as breeding ground for Anti-Semitism in Europe during the nineteenth century and that eventually led to the holocaust. To this purpose, the anonymous person who wrote the real Protocols of the Elders of Zion that inspired Adolf Hitler takes fictitious shape as an utterly unlikeable, not to say despicable memoirist with a split personality. In fact, he comes to life as resourceful spy and as paragon of the fanatical as well as ruthless schemer. Although intelligent and well-bred, he proves unable or unwilling to see how arbitrary and absurd the Jewish stereotypes are that he kindles since childhood because his misanthropy and discontent claim a target, in other words a scapegoat. According to the author, most other characters are real historical figures and the books cited from which the protagonist draws his “knowledge” can still be found in libraries. I must admit that to counterbalance all the Anti-Semitic statements that unfortunately permeate the text from beginning to end and almost give it the aspect of a racist manifesto I’d have appreciated a satirical tone. Otherwise, it was an engaging read.

To learn something about the history of Anti-Semitism in Europe, The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco has certainly been the right novel to read although I didn’t pick it with this in mind. To be truthfully, its plot took me quite by surprise and along the way it even revolted me a great deal for repeating all those disgusting tales about Jews that the Nazis used to justify their race laws. Luckily, I don’t usually go for light entertainment and therefore I didn’t regret my choice. In fact, I feel that I spent my time well despite all because I gained new insight into how hatred against Jews could ever grow so much to make possible the holocaust. I wasn’t aware of all the books from the nineteenth century that defamed the entire “race”, some of them even written by popular authors. Thus I gladly recommend this controversial Italian novel.

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