Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Umberto Eco is an author who has earned the right to write just about anything he wishes, and one of his more recent novels, The Prague Cemetery, he has taken it upon himself to write about a complex subject, hardly explicable in a sentence. In short, it follows a man responsible for creating conspiracies and spinning webs of prejudice as he tries to recollect his past and the event which led him to lose his memory.
Table of contents
Umberto Eco Introduces the Master Conspirator
The interest around conspiracy theories has been so prevalent in recent years, the term itself has lost some of its weight and former meaning, carrying a connotation of ridicule more than anything else. Umberto Eco evidently takes the topic quite seriously, and he chose it as the central focus for The Prague Cemetery, starting by asking the question as to what makes the perfect conspiracy to sell people, and why they’re so willing to buy it.
The narrative begins by introducing us to Simonini, a man in his mid-sixties suffering from a peculiar form of memory loss. In an attempt to shed some light on the event which led him to lose his memory, Simonini sits down and begins to write down the story of his life, hoping his hand might lead him to remember what his brain forgot.
He begins the story of his life innocently enough, talking about his extremely racist grandfather who, from an early age, instilled in Simonini a hatred of Jews and the belief in their ambitions for world domination. The further he examines his life, the more of his innocence Simonini begins to shed, and eventually embarks on the career path destined to mark him and many others: that of a document forger.
Starting off relatively small, he finds the opportunity to provide his services to increasingly high-class people, who start asking from him a little more than a few forged deeds. Working for the secret services, he is tasked with inventing conspiracies, passing them off as real accounts, to fulfill whatever ends his employers were pursuing. Eventually, he becomes a central figure in shaping the minds and actions of regular people.
People are never so completely and enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction.― Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery
As Simonini writes his journal, he notices new entries beginning to appear, signed by an Abbe Dalla Piccola, who may or may not be the result of a split personality. New complications never cease to rise on the old man’s path to remembering his trauma, but he pushes past all of them, uncovering things he had long-forgotten on his path to the horrifying truth.
A Fictional Treatise on Conspiracy in The Prague Cemetery
As I mentioned it at the start of my review, this book is essentially focused on the topic of conspiracies and everything which goes along with it, from their birth to their effective propagation and ultimately either their death or successful cementing in the minds of the people. Umberto Eco spends many pages discussing the concept, and he’s got more than a few interesting thoughts to share.
As Simonini tries to create the perfect conspiracy, we follow his thought process in great detail and are made to understand how he arrives at the conclusions which lead him to make his creative choices. While the title of psychologist doesn’t seem to be among the many attributed to the author, he provides a highly keen insight into human nature, especially when it comes to the propagation of ideas across large numbers of people.
We follow Simonini’s fictional magnum opus from its inception as an idea instilled in him by his grandfather to its ultimate realization in what he sees as his moment of triumph, and I never once found myself thinking of it as being unrealistic. In part, this is what made it so impactful for me: the idea human beings are conceivably predisposed to allowing such backwards concepts to take root.
A mystic is a hysteric who has met her confessor before her doctor.― Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery
The development of the prejudiced ideas inside Simonini’s head is also traced rather meticulously, with Umberto Eco ensuring none of it is randomly born out of blind rage. We get acquainted with the various literary works (such as Alexandre Dumas‘ Joseph Balsamo) which inspired him and formed his character, as well as the many people whose ideas he comes to admire and absorb for their resonance with his own bigotry.
Ultimately, The Prague Cemetery doesn’t answer all our questions about conspiracy theories and their place in society, but I think it does provide some valuable insight on what is necessary for them to spread. They thrive on peoples’ ignorance, on their need to explain the woes of their existence by the evil actions of unstoppable outsiders hidden in the shadows… most of all, it thrives on peoples’ need to absolve themselves of responsibility for their own life failures.
A Hefty Espionage Adventure
Though it’s certainly punctuated by a whole lot of writing and forgery, the main character’s life almost reads like an action novel at times, having him work, among other things, as a spy during Garibaldi‘s invasion of Sicily and an agent of Emperor Napoleon the Third’s secret service. There is a whole lot of movement from start to finish, and this is without even touching on the mystery of the second writer in Simonini’s journal, or what he finds down in his sewer.
On the whole, I think the best word to describe the flow of events in this novel would be “turbulent”. There are seldom any moments of respite, with our main character always either racing somewhere or passionately trying to figure out the best way of doing something (usually writing a conspiracy). Umberto Eco does take pauses to give us some history lessons and excursions, and I’d say they’re just prominent enough to enhance the rest of the plot.
Naturally, there are two less savoury aspect of this novel I feel like I have to address, with the first one being the amount of prejudice and antisemitism found within. Umberto Eco denounces it with every fibre of his being, exposing the ridiculous nature of the concept, just how far-fetched it is and the irrational hatred fueling it.
Perhaps the hardest-hitting part came at the very end, where the author indicates most of the characters in The Prague Cemetery were real people and the the things they said were all accurately documented. In other words, there is non-fictional antisemitic discourse in this novel, and it can get quite heavy at times, even though its presence is not only understandable, but in my opinion, absolutely necessary. It’s not always easy to face the rotten core Man.
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Speaking of which, our main character, as you might have gathered by now, is the kind of person you definitely wouldn’t want to be acquainted with in real life. Misogynistic, racist, cantankerous and abusive, it took me some time to get used to him as a person and accept him as the protagonist. Contrary to every expectation I had, Umberto Eco does manage to give him some redeeming qualities, and ultimately made him into someone I was curious to follow. I didn’t like him, but I did find him extremely interesting.
The Final Verdict
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco is a hefty and far-reaching novel touching on some very sensitive and difficult topics relating to conspiracies and the historical role of Jewish people in them. It provides thought-provoking insight into human nature, and exposes in the light the recorded, antisemitic thoughts of relatively famous people (in their own fields, at least) who were alive not too long ago.
If you’re an aficionado of historical fiction, enjoy the topic of conspiracy theories, and aren’t afraid to delve into a heftier, more meaningful type of literature, then I’d say you should definitely give this book a chance; few capture as well as the reality of what Man is capable of.
Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards; those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and those bastards always talk about the purity of race.― Umberto Eco, The Prague Cemetery
(January 5, 1932 – February 19, 2016)
Umberto Eco was an Italian novelist, philosopher, literary critic and university professor whose best-known work came out in 1980, a historical mystery, The Name of the Rose. Amongst the numerous prices he was awarded are the Bancarella Prize, Strega Prize, Austrian State Prize for European Literature, and The Vize 97 Prize.