Umberto Eco’s fiction has always showed a fascination with stories. In his previous novel, the disappointing The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, an elderly bookseller immerses himself in memories of the stories of his youth; in what remains his most famous novel, The Name of the Rose the mystery is centred on a library. In The Prague Cemetery the stories may not literally poison, but nonetheless they are designed to infect minds. In it, Eco turns his historical gaze on the rise of modern anti-Semitism by shining a light on the dark art of propaganda.
The protagonist and narrator (at least, for the most part) is a double agent in more ways than one: not only does he play one side against the other, largely for financial inducement, but he begins the novel uncertain of the singularity of his identity:
“Yesterday, which I thought was Tuesday the 22nd of March, I woke up thinking I knew perfectly well who I was – …Simone Simonini, born in Turin, father from Turin, mother French.”
(Both name and nationality also have a double nature). He is removing his own disguise one morning when he spots the costume of another:
“I was wondering what third-rate actor I might have given accommodation to over the past few days when I realised that I too had been in disguise…Was I someone, then, who dressed alternately as a respectable gentleman and as a priest?”
Our central character is a secret agent and propagandist who is so uncertain of the truth he does not even know himself. He is also unaware of the damage he has caused over his long career, regarding himself as a man that rarely kills, yet unable to explain the corpses he has hidden beneath his house. The novel, then, is his attempt to regain his present by retelling his past.
Eco, of course, excels in the intricacies of history, and the novel abounds with historical events and personages. Simonini inherits his anti-Semitism from his grandfather, who tells him tales of the Templars, the Masons, and Jewish plans for world domination. His father is more considered; even when quoting the views of a priest against Jesuits he comments:
“But I have always been amused… that Gioberti took some of these ideas second-hand from The Wandering Jew, a novel by Eugene Sue, published the year before.”
As we shall see, fiction will reappear as fact frequently throughout the novel, and Simonini himself is soon an avid reader of Dumas, whose ideas he will later borrow and adapt. (Dumas himself later appears, apparently confusing reality with story, as an enthusiastic supporter of Garibaldi). Simonini’s father and grandfather die and he works for the family lawyer, who he feels has cheated him, to make ends meet. Part of that job entails forging documentation, and this brings him to the attention of the secret service. As a reward for entrapping a group of radicals he asks for the lawyer to be imprisoned. Later, when asked for information he does not have, he decides to invent it:
“Hence the idea that I might sell Bianco not only a few scraps of gossip I had picked up here and there, but an entire document taken from the Jesuits.”
Whether the document is true or false is never the issue –when Simonini initially pretends to be angered at the suggestion it may be a forgery, Bianco tells him, “Even if this document is all your own handiwork, it suits me and my superiors to present it to the government as genuine.” It is this same document, reappearing in different forms to suit different audiences throughout the novel, which leads to the famous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. (It will also not surprise you to learn that Simonini is also involved in framing Dreyfus).
For a novel with such an unpleasant central character, The Prague Cemetery is generally very readable, with a fast-moving plot which can be (as Eco himself admits) a little confusing. As with his previous novel, it is illustrated throughout, with the many prints giving the impression of something fabricated, like the many forgeries Simonini creates, from existing sources. Eco has often celebrated the power of stories, but here he shows their danger: though the novel ends before the 19th century, it is the 20th century that is most in our minds.