The Prague Cemetery (Umberto Eco)

Posted: April 29, 2015 in Uncategorized
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For the first time in years, I now have a public library card. I haven’t had one since before I got divorced. There’s something about my relationship to the library that has changed in this time; it’s not the home it once was. The books are free, so I want to grab them all, every one that appeals to me, and take them home at once. But then, when I do have them at home, my interest in them is gone. I think that part of the problem is the temporary nature of my association with the book. I feel as if the books I own are a part of me, but library books can never be mine. There’s also the physical experience of the book: I like a book to feel warm and natural in my hand, tree-ish, not covered in cheap plastic. When it comes to books, there’s a certain correlation between love and damage, and it’s hard for me to connect with something so well protected. Fortunately, I have lots of books that I own, including several that I haven’t read yet.

When an experienced reader picks up a book by Umberto Eco, he knows exactly what he will find. Historical conspiracy theories, a bizarre ritual at the climax, and misogyny. Lots and lots of misogyny. Eco’s more successful works are those that provide a reason for this exclusive boys’ club, like The Name of the Rose, which takes place in a monastery on the historical line between the Dark Ages and the Renaissance. I started Baudolino but didn’t finish it because I got to the point where I just couldn’t take any more of the solely decorative female characters. The misogyny in The Prague Cemetery makes sense because the protagonist is very open and honest with the reader and himself about the fact that he hates women. In fact, in the opening chapter he explains how he hates just about everyone: women, Germans, Russians, Jews, the French, southern Italians, Masons, Jesuits, all of them. I suspect he even hates himself. He recently committed an act so thoroughly against his own character that he starts the book with a psychic break between personalities accompanied by amnesia, and it’s told as two distinct personalities trying to piece together a personal history by writing a diary. There’s a third-person narrator/audience surrogate who occasionally arbitrates, and sometimes summarizes years of life in which nothing happens to advance the plot.

Simonini was raised by his father and grandfather, and therein lies the trouble. The grandfather spent a lot of his time with the Jesuits, discussing the big Jewish conspiracy to bring down everything. The father spent a lot of time with the republican army, discussing the big Jesuit conspiracy to bring down everything. Instead of choosing one or the other, Simonini absorbs both their prejudices and grows up hating everyone. He admires some people who are skilled in useful trades, but throughout his life he never meets anyone he loves, either romantically or fraternally. Perhaps this is why it’s taken me so long to read the book; I don’t like being around someone like him.

I have heard it said that over a billion people inhabit this earth. I don’t know how anyone could count them, but from one look around Palermo it’s quite clear that there are too many of us and that we’re already stepping on each other’s toes. And most people smell. There isn’t sufficient food. Just imagine if there were any more of us. We therefore have to cull the population. True, there are plagues and suicides, capital punishment, those who challenge each other to duels and who get pleasure from riding at breakneck speed through woods and meadows. I’ve even heard of English gentlemen who go swimming in the sea and, of course, drown. But it is not enough. Wars are the most effective and natural way imaginable for stemming the increase in human numbers. Once upon a time, when people went off to war, didn’t they say it was God’s will? But to do so, you need people who want to fight. If no one wants to fight, no one will die. Then wars would be pointless. So it’s vital to have men like Nievo, Abba and Bandi who want to throw themselves in the line of fire. Others like me can then live without being harassed by so many people breathing down our necks.

In other words, although I don’t like them, we do need noble-spirited souls.

Simonini is from Turin, born somewhere around 1830. I feel like a more exact knowledge of Continental nineteenth-century history would have been an advantage in reading this book; my knowledge of the century comes from having studied Victorian literature, so if the United Kingdom had been an important setting I would have felt right at home. But my understanding of the Continent at the time only extends to its effect on British writers, and by the time they passed the Reform Bill the novelists and poets were focused on domestic matters or the distant empire; nothing farther than Newcastle but closer than India gets consistent attention. So when I find myself in the middle of Garibaldi’s attempts to unite Italy, I see his name and think, Italian revolutionary with a red shirt, but I don’t fully understand the issues he was fighting for. Eco kind of gives the impression that Garibaldi himself didn’t understand what was going on. Simonini is a forger and master of disguise who does some spy work for the Piedmont government. However, his hatred of every group in existence gets him in trouble; government alliances shift frequently, and it’s important never to go too far in any direction. When Simonini engineers the explosion of a ship carrying one of Garibaldi’s top officials, Piedmont gets rid of him by shuffling him off to Paris.

In Paris, he does similar work, spying on this or that person, forging documents that lead to huge international incidents. Throughout it all, there’s his little story of the Prague cemetery that he keeps revising and reusing. Originally cribbed from Eugene Sue, he writes the story of the leading rabbis meeting at midnight in the Jewish cemetery in Prague to discuss their plans to take over Europe. It’s very thinly veiled propaganda. As the winds of politics change, he revises the story to match whoever it needs to be used against. He ends up working with a lot of real historical characters, who tend to be bigots, or at least interested in inspiring mass hatreds.

I don’t want to destroy the Jews. I might even say the Jews are my best allies. I’m interested in the morale of the Russian people. It is my wish (and the wish of those I hope to please) that these people do not direct their discontent against the tsar. We therefore need an enemy. There’s no point looking for an enemy among, I don’t know, the Mongols or the Tatars, as despots have done in the past. For the enemy to be recognized and feared, he has to be in your home or on your doorstep. Hence the Jews. Divine providence has given them to us, and so, by God, let us use them, and pray there’s always some Jew to fear and to hate. We need an enemy to give people hope. Someone said that patriotism is the last refuge of cowards; those without moral principles usually wrap a flag around themselves, and the bastards always talk about the purity of the race. National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. 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.

And, of course, Simonini also deals with those who hate the Jews for different reasons:

The English Methodists, the German Pietists, the Swiss and the Dutch all learn to read the will of God from the same book as the Jews – the Bible, a story of incest and massacres and barbarous wars, where the only way to win is through treachery and deception, where kings have men murdered so they can take their wives, where women who call themselves saints enter the beds of enemy generals and cut off their heads. Cromwell had the head of his king cut off while quoting the Bible. Malthus, who denied the children of the poor the right to life, was steeped in the Bible. It’s a race that spends its time recalling its slavery, and is always ready to yield to the cult of the Golden Calf, ignoring every sign of divine wrath. The battle against the Jews ought to be the main purpose of every socialist worthy of the name. I am not talking about communists – their founder is a Jew. The problem is exposing the conspiracy of money. Why does an apple in a Paris restaurant cost a hundred times more than in Normandy? There are unscrupulous races who live on the flesh of others, merchant races like the ancient Phoenicians and Carthaginians. And today it’s the English and the Jews.

And, if you’re starting to get visions of Nazis, you’re pretty close to the truth.

I asked if he thought he was a good example of the superior, Apollonian race. He glowered at me and said that belonging to a race is not just a physical matter but above all a spiritual one. A Jew is still a Jew even if, by accident of nature, he is born with blond hair and blue eyes, in the same way as there are children born with six fingers and women capable of doing multiplication. And an Aryan is an Aryan if he lives the spirit of his people, even if he has black hair.

All this hatred really grinds you down after a while. Eco’s writing is spectacular, as ever, but his choice of subject is so antipathetic to my customary frame of mind that I disliked the book, just as I disliked Foucault’s Pendulum and The Island of the Day Before, only more intensely because it more directly attacks my fundamental belief in the goodness of humanity with fewer interruptions to discuss theoretical matters that don’t relate to human evil. And instead of only using women in a dismissive way (you can glimpse them flirting there at the margins of Eco’s stories), Simonini spends a lot of time using a woman and thoroughly hating her.

Diana Vaughan is not a central or important character. She has dissociative personality disorder; the more dominant personality is a sexually voracious Satanist who tells lots of stories about her brief time with the Masons. The less dominant personality is a sweet, pious girl who is horrified at everything her other self does, says, or believes. Simonini takes her out of a mental institution and hides her in a private apartment, where he and his colleagues use her imaginative stories to blacken the reputation of the Masonic lodges. The colleagues also use her for sex. Simonini is too repulsed by the human body to take advantage of her in this way, until the climactic ritual, a black mass that ends in an orgy. There’s a bit here that reminds me of one of my favorite parts of The Name of the Rose, and I think that Eco really excels at describing the experience of sex:

I know that such abandonment will cause my whole body to waste away, will bring an ashen pallor to my dying face, clouded vision and disturbed dreams, husky voice, pains in my eyeballs, the invasion of pestilent red marks upon my face, the vomiting of calciferous materials, palpitations – and finally, with syphilis, blindness.

And though I can no longer see, I feel the most excruciating and indescribable and unbearable sensation of my life, as if all the blood from throughout my veins were suddenly gushing out from a tear in each of my taut limbs, from my nose, from my ears, from my fingertips, from my anus, help, help, I think I know now what death is, from which every living being recoils, even when he seeks it through an unnatural instinct to multiply his own seed.

I can no longer write, I no longer recall, I am reliving, the experience is unbearable, I wish I could forget it all again . . .

So of course he takes the girl home and kills her. The two acts together cause the psychic break and amnesia mentioned at the beginning; once he remembers what he’s done, he no longer needs the separation of consciousness, so he reintegrates his self and gets back to work destroying the Jews. He makes one last expansion/revision and sells the Prague cemetery story for the last time, with the implication that this will become The Protocols of Zion, that document that stirred up a passionate European hatred of the Jews right through the Holocaust.

When I consider Eco’s career, at least the now four and a half novels of his that I’ve read, I really have to wonder how similar Simonini is to Eco himself. Eco loves to write about conspiracy theories, always portrayed in a spirit of ridicule for the people who believe in them. Christianity seems to be the biggest conspiracy of all. As I reflect on it, Eco has written very few characters whom I actually like, or who have a favorable opinion of humanity. I like the narrator/protagonist of The Name of the Rose and his Sherlock-Holmesian friend Brother William, and I like Casaubon’s girlfriend in Foucault’s Pendulum. That’s about it.

But generally, despite his great skill in writing, Eco writes books that I can’t agree with, but can’t argue with either. He has a vast wealth of historical knowledge and a deep, deep cynicism; all I have is my faith in people. As I think over time, my own personal history and not the history of global events, I think Eco is wrong about people. Perhaps they are a bit gullible, but they’re not evil, and they’re not stupid. Love is just as natural as hate, though it’s harder to manipulate. Sex is not weird or wrong; loving copulation is as natural as breathing, with similarly healthful effects. People are good, and the world is a beautiful place: two facts that Eco’s characters shut their eyes to, and they then call their blindness truth. I don’t generally think of myself as a person of faith, my faith in religion or God being almost nonexistent, but I believe in people. I love them – I love you. And because you are a human being, I believe you are good, you are strong, and you are beautiful. This faith remains unshaken.

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