Posts Tagged ‘nazis’


house of the dead

So apparently I’ve given up sleeping. I don’t know why, but this week it’s just been really difficult for me to stay down. Two days a week I’m at work for twelve hours, so I ought to be exhausted, but I still pop awake after a few hours. I suppose there are more stressors in my life than I realize, and I’m probably not dealing with them appropriately.

This book is not nearly so Halloween-y as its title implies. When he was in his late twenties, Dostoevsky was arrested for publishing articles that were inconveniently political, and he spent four years in a Siberian prison. This book was his way of understanding and communicating that experience. This was very early in his writing career, so the effects of it ring out through his better-known works, like Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. There are some gestures toward fictionalization, but I tend to think that there’s not much fiction in it, so as I’m discussing this I’ll probably conflate the author with the narrator. I know that’s a logically problematic choice, but I’m going with it.

In many ways, the prison is a microcosm of the society as a whole, or at least as men experience it. There is a strong division between the working class and the moneyed class which prevents them from ever crossing over and making friends. In the United States, we sometimes talk about our society as if we really were all created equal, but the Russians of the nineteenth century have no illusions on this subject. They see humanity as divided between servants and masters, and what you are is what you are. When First-Person Narrator arrives at the prison, he tries to be egalitarian and make friends with all sorts, but they are quick to put him in his place – he was raised in the upper class, so he has no business mixing with the workers. It’s not his social peers that class him off, it’s those who are lower who exclude him.

Some people think that if convicts are well fed and well kept and all the requirements of the law are satisfied, that is all that is necessary. This is an error, too. Everyone, whoever he may be and however down-trodden he may be, demands – though perhaps instinctively, perhaps unconsciously – respect for his dignity as a human being. The convict knows himself that he is a convict, an outcast, and knows his place before his commanding officer; but by no branding, by no fetters will you make him forget that he is a human being. And as he really is a human being he ought to be treated humanely. My God, yes! Humane treatment may humanise even one in whom the image of God has long been obscured. These “unfortunates” need even more humane treatment than others. It is their salvation and their joy. I have met some good-hearted, high-minded officers. I have seen the influence they exerted on these degraded creatures. A few kind words from them meant almost a moral resurrection for the convicts. They were as pleased as children and as children began to love them. I must mention another strange thing: the convicts themselves do not like to be treated too familiarly and too softly by their officers. They want to respect those in authority over them, and too much softness makes them cease to respect them. The convicts like their commanding officer to have decorations, too, they like him to be presentable, they like him to be in favour with some higher authority, they like him to be strict and important and just, and they like him to keep up his dignity. The convicts prefer such an officer: they feel that he keeps up his own dignity and does not insult them, and so they feel everything is right and as it should be.

As with the officers, so with the owners of the means of production. I’ve seen this same fact in working with students – not the ones who come to college, but the teenagers who are having a rough life. When I lived in Washington I sometimes was assigned to the school for ‘troubled’ kids: the ones who have to be escorted to school by law enforcement officers, the school with a padded room for students whose emotions get the better of them. It was a difficult assignment for me because I felt nothing in common with these people, and I lack the firmness they require. I am too familiar and too soft for this population, so they don’t have much respect for me. But I like being who I am, so I’m not going to ‘toughen up’ to satisfy a group that I may never have to work with again. This is why I prefer teaching adults; kids who are like this are still forced to come to school, but this is the type of adult who doesn’t see the purpose of continuing his education, so doesn’t. I won’t deny that some of my students may have fit this category in their past, but by the time they get to the community college they are mature enough to recognize that I teach for their benefit, and that it’s their responsibility to take the benefit from what I teach.

Circling back to the guards, the ones he writes about are seldom the fluffy successful type described above. He talks more about the ones that remind me of the stories of Auschwitz guards, and in some ways the Siberian prison camps were a lot like the German prison camps a hundred years later. The same emphasis on work that doesn’t produce anything, like moving a pile of rocks from one place to another and then back again. The same temptation for the guards to become almost inhumanly violent and cruel.

Tyranny is a habit; it may develop, and it does develop at last, into a disease. I maintain that the very best of men may be coarsened and hardened into a brute by habit. Blood and power intoxicate; coarseness and depravity are developed; the mind and the heart are tolerant of the most abnormal things, till at last they come to relish them. The man and the citizen is lost for ever in the tyrant, and the return to human dignity, to repentance and regeneration becomes almost impossible.

Unlike with the Nazis, though, there is a safe haven: the hospital. Prisoners come to the hospital when they need a rest for a few days, and the doctors are actually kind and lenient with them. Some of the convicts choose a sort of slow suicide: they steep their snuff in vodka, then drink it off. I don’t know the mechanism behind it, but this somehow gives them consumption, from which they die a horrible death. This passage reminds me of some of the stories I’ve heard about people dying of AIDS; I don’t understand why, but AIDS stories always make me extremely emotional.

And now as I write this, I vividly recall the death of the consumptive patient, Mihailov, whose bed was nearly opposite mine, not far from Ustyantsev’s. He died, I remember, four days after I came in. Possibly I have mentioned the case of the consumptives through unconsciously recalling the impressions and ideas which came into my mind at the sight of that death. I knew little of Mihailov himself, however. He was quite young, not more than five-and-twenty, tall, thin, and of extremely attractive appearance. He was in the “special division,” and was strangely silent, always gently and quietly melancholy, as though he were “drying up” in prison, as the convicts said of him. He left a pleasant memory among them. I only remember that he had fine eyes, and I really do not know why he comes back to my mind so distinctly. He died at three o’clock in the afternoon on a bright frosty day. I remember the glowing slanting rays of the sun pierced through the green frozen panes of our windows. The sunshine was streaming full on the dying man. He was unconscious, and lay for several hours in the death agony. From early morning he had scarcely recognised those who went up to him. The patients would have liked to do something for him, seeing his distress; his breathing was deep, painful and raucous; his chest heaved as though he could not get air. He flung off his quilt and his clothes, and began at last to tear off his shirt; even that seemed a weight to him. The other patients went to his help and took off his shirt. It was terrible to see that long, long body, the arms and legs wasted to the bone, the sunken belly, the strained chest, the ribs standing out like a skeleton’s. Nothing remained on his body but a wooden cross and a little bag with a relic in it, and his fetters which might, it seemed, have slipped off his wasted legs. Half an hour before his death the whole ward was hushed, we began to talk almost in whispers. Everyone moved about noiselessly. The patients did not talk much, and then of other things; they only looked now and then at the dying man, who was gasping more and more terribly. At last, with a straying and uncertain hand, he fumbled at the cross on his chest and began pulling it off, as though even that were a weight that worried and oppressed him. The patients removed the cross, too. Ten minutes later he died. They knocked at the door for the sentry and told him. An attendant came in, looked blankly at the dead man, and went to fetch a medical assistant. The medical assistant, a good-natured young fellow somewhat excessively occupied with his personal appearance, which was prepossessing however, soon came in, went up to the dead man with rapid steps that sounded noisy in the silent ward, and with a particularly unconcerned air, which he seemed to have assumed for the occasion, took his wrist, felt his pulse and went away with a wave of his hand. Word was sent to the sergeant in charge: the criminal was an important one and could not be certified as dead without special ceremony. While we were waiting for the sergeant, one of the convicts suggested in a low voice that it might be as well to close the dead man’s eyes. Another man listened attentively, without a word went up to the dead man and closed his eyes. Seeing the cross lying on the pillow, he picked it up, looked at it, and put it round Mihailov’s neck again; then he crossed himself. Meanwhile, the dead face was growing rigid; the sunlight was flickering on it; the mouth was half open; two rows of white young teeth glistened between the thin parched lips.

One of the things that I noticed here, again and again, is that FPN always notices and comments on whether a man is handsome or not. He seems to really enjoy spending time with men who are young and handsome, but he doesn’t expand on why, and this question of why does seem to bother him at times. I’m not saying that Dostoevsky was a closet case; I’m just remarking on a trend. It also seems to me that the convicts have no privacy or personal space, not even to bathe. The bath-house is far too small for them, so they’re packed in as tightly as possible, so tightly that the water runs off of one man and onto his neighbors. It does seem like a great opportunity for some homosexual voyeurism, but Dostoevsky doesn’t go there. FPN sees a mass of limbs but doesn’t get into specifics.

There is a great diversity in this prison – there are some Poles, some Muslims from farther south, and even a Jew. The groups don’t always mix, and the Muslims mostly don’t speak Russian, but sometimes when we read Dostoevsky it seems like Petersburg, Moscow, and a little patch of countryside are all that Russia amounts to, but even at this time it was a vast empire, and convicts from all over got sent to Siberia. The one element of diversity we don’t see is in gender. For the convicts, there are two types of women: good wives and mothers who love unconditionally and are universally absent, and whores. The whores may not be good (or deserve names), but at least they’re here.  There is one exception to this rule, in the story “Akulka’s Husband.” Akulka is a good girl who gets treated like a whore, a passive object for others to project their fantasies on, and so she gets beaten a lot and eventually dies.

I mentioned this as a story – the book is not a continuous narrative. He compresses all of his time into a year, like Thoreau did with Walden, so that we have that same autumn-winter-spring-summer progression that we get in an Austen novel. It’s like someone sat down next to him and said, “So, Dostoevsky, tell me about Siberia.” I recognize it because it’s the same sort of unorganized rambling that I do when someone sits next to me and says, “So, Occ Man, tell me about Saudi Arabia,” or “What was Brazil like?” or “How does someone like you, raised as a Mormon and a true believer, get married, have kids, come out of the closet, get divorced and leave your church?” It’s too big a subject to handle in normal, polite conversation, and the person asking rarely wants a complete answer. It’s taken me a while to figure out how to answer to the other person’s satisfaction – tell a story or two that show a little foreignness but not too much, and make the stories funny. Avoid telling them about the depression and isolation because that’s not what they want to hear. It’s a bit like the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – they want to hear about the adventure, but they don’t want to know that most of the adventure involves being tensely bored, and they certainly don’t want to feel the tension or the boredom. How does one make these intensely difficult experiences into entertaining nuggets to share at cocktail parties? I’m still working on that. The funny stories don’t spring to mind all the time, so I could talk about the two-foot-high sunflowers or the stray cat that got adopted at the desert compound, or I could talk about tromping through the jungle and drinking out of a stream or walking on a road built by slaves two hundred years ago, or I could talk about how much I loved my ex-wife and that my divorce was just like a straight man’s or how it took me seven years to stop being afraid of my own feelings. Dostoevsky’s book is written from the vantage point of the guy who has just finished the experience but hasn’t yet figured out how to share it.

FPN says that prison is the first time he’s ever spent time with the working class, and from the homogenization of them I’d guess it’s Dostoevsky’s first time too. I grew up among the working poor, but my mother did not, unless you count the maid, and in her stories I always felt that we had somehow come down in the world. We might be the poor children of an air-conditioning repairman, but her father had worked closely with Eisenhower during the War, attended Cornell University, and become a civil engineer for the federal government. Sometimes I can still hear her voice in my head, telling us not to act like the neighbor kids (of whom she did not approve, but we were way out in the country and there was literally no one else to play with), or not to act like a black person (that was for my younger siblings, never for me), or not to act like a fairy (that one was for me alone, never directed at the others), because we were better than all of them. Before I finished high school I had worked out that she was wrong, that no person is better than any other, and that money and culture do not determine a person’s worth, but I had to work that out on my own. Dostoevsky learns that lesson too, but here in prison.

There is no standard by which to measure the soul and its development. Even education itself is no test. I am ready to be the first to testify that, in the midst of these utterly uneducated and down-trodden sufferers, I came across instances of the greatest spiritual refinement. Sometimes one would know a man for years in prison and despise him and think that he was not a human being but a brute. And suddenly a moment will come by chance when his soul will suddenly reveal itself in an involuntary outburst, and you see in it such wealth, such feeling, such heart, such a vivid understanding of its own suffering, and of the suffering of others, that your eyes are open and for the first moment you can’t believe what you have seen and heard yourself. The contrary happens too; education is sometimes found side by side with such barbarity, such cynicism, that it revolts you, and in spite of the utmost good-nature and all previous theories on the subject, you can find no justification or apology.

This is one of the things that we come to Dostoevsky for, this understanding of every person’s individual worth and dignity, what George Eliot describes as ‘sympathy,’ but in this book he’s still developing that understanding. I feel like it hasn’t quite become a habit of mind yet; this is me as a kid on the playground, wanting to be involved but left on the outside because I wasn’t athletic and I talked funny (Boston accent in rural North Carolina). The author hasn’t yet reached his maturity. That makes this book an interesting signpost in his development, but for fans of The Major Novels, the ones in The World Literary Canon, it’s a little disorienting and disappointing.


For the last two weeks, I’ve been working on grading some research projects, and the teacher gave them all the same topic, so it’s been a little hard to focus on because my mind keeps wandering away from globalization to other things. Any other thing. This morning I was finishing the last of it, and I had some coffee to help me wake up and focus, and I listened to exciting swing music, so now I have all this energy and not much to do with it.

Globalization is becoming rather a pertinent topic lately, with Brexit and Trump’s increasingly intolerant policies. These current struggles are foreshadowed in this book, describing Turkey a good twenty or thirty years ago. Thinking back over Pamuk’s career and the books of his that I’ve read, The Black Book was written before he became internationally famous, and the dominant feeling is the author’s deep love for Istanbul. Then there was this one, The New Life, which expands over all of Turkey, but the optimism implied in the title is misleading. This is an angry, unhappy book. Then there was the first one I read, My Name is Red, the historical murder mystery that helped him really ‘make it’ in the world market. A few years later he was awarded the Nobel Prize, and quickly became the best-selling Nobel author in history.

So, Reader, place your faith neither in a character like me, who is not all that sensitive, nor in my anguish and the violence of the story I have to tell; but believe that the world is a cruel place. Besides, this newfangled plaything called the novel, which is the greatest invention of Western culture, is none of our culture’s business. That the reader hears the clumsiness of my voice within these pages is not because I am speaking raucously from a plane which has been polluted by books and vulgarized by gross thoughts; it results rather from the fact that I still have not quite figured out how to inhabit this foreign toy.

First-person narrator is not a happy guy. The book starts off promising, but it actually goes south pretty quickly.

I read a book one day and my whole life was changed. Even on the first page I was so affected by the book’s intensity I felt my body sever itself and pull away from the chair where I sat reading the book that lay before me on the table. But even though I felt my body dissociating, my entire being remained so concertedly at the table that the book worked its influence not only on my soul but on every aspect of my identity. It was such a powerful influence that the light surging from the pages illumined my face; its incandescence dazzled my intellect but also endowed it with brilliant lucidity. This was the kind of light within which I could recast myself; I could lose my way in this light; I already sensed in the light the shadows of an existence I had yet to know and embrace.

Most of us who love reading have had this sort of experience, and I think that we’re especially susceptible to it when we’re young, as he is. Early 20s, still at the university, a time when we are acutely aware of the fact that we are transforming ourselves into the people we want to be. But for most of us, the research we do into the books we read, no matter how emotional we feel about them, is essentially impersonal. We don’t meet our favorite authors, in my case because they’d been dead for over a hundred years. For Protagonist, though the book leads him into intensely personal spaces.

In the life of those people like me whose lives have slipped off the track, sorrow presents itself in the form of rage that wants to pass itself of as cleverness. And it’s the desire to be clever that finally spoils everything.

He reads the book, and it’s so powerful for him that he wants to meet with the girl who first made him aware of it. They do meet again, but she’s not really into him; she’s all over the guy who introduced her to the book, Mehmet. Mehmet isn’t as into her as she is into him. One day, Protagonist is looking for them and sees Mehmet get shot in the street, right next to her. He asks around and gets really contradictory information about what happened, whether Mehmet is alive or not, still studying at the university or not, still in town or not. Eventually he gives up and takes to the buses. At this point I really started to feel like I was reading a book by David Lynch – the critics say Kafka, but I haven’t made it through The Trial, and I have made it through Eraserhead. They all three share this phantasmagoric quality, which feels sort of allegorical but is not transparent enough for me to find the meaning.

He’s riding buses, changing destinations at random, and Turkey is a big country. There’s plenty of room to get lost in. Then his bus crashes. Then another bus crashes. Then he starts looking for buses that are likely to crash. He thinks he’s being led intuitively by the book, but this section (Act 1 of 3) is full of random accidents. He starts to see that the new life he’s looking for is really close to death. Indeed, his obsession with bus crashes seems to lead toward death. And crime, since he robs the newly dead to keep buying bus tickets. He does run into the girl again – her name is Janan, and in keeping with Pamuk’s habit of portentous names for female characters, it means Soulmate. They ride the buses together, still looking for crashes, both now also looking for Mehmet. In one of the crashes, they meet a couple who had been going to a dealers’ convention to meet Doctor Fine, so they steal their identities and destination.

Act 2 is at Doctor Fine’s. Unbeknownst to Janan and himself, Doctor Fine is Mehmet’s father. Mehmet is an identity that he stole later on. Doctor Fine thinks that his son is dead, and he blames the book for polluting his son with Western influences. Because he hates the book so much, he has spies all over the country looking for the people who read and are affected by the book, and if they seem to be spreading the book they get shot. This is where the similarity to ultra-nationalists like the Americans who support Trump and the British who support Brexit became a little uncomfortable for me. There’s nothing wrong with patriotism, and I personally love North Carolina quite passionately, but I don’t believe any community is served by extreme conservatism. Things change. Cultures change. It’s what happens. But Doctor Fine and his followers are devoted to preserving one aspect of culture as Turkish and rejecting the ways that their culture is changing. No culture can be distilled to a single issue, and choosing the making of local goods and crafts instead of mass-produced imports only makes sense to them because they are dealers trying to preserve their livelihoods. As with our conservatives, they assume that what is good for them personally is good for the nation as a whole, and as with our conservatives, they pick and choose which parts of the country and the culture are Turkey and deny the existence of others. A significant portion of Turkey is European, it borders on Greece and Bulgaria, but European influence is bad for Turkey, which they perceive to be an Asian, Muslim country. And how much of America is heterosexual, white, and Christian? Not all of it. Not even most of it. A recent study showed that white Christians have become a minority group (comprised mostly of people over 30), and if you subtract the gay white Christians, they’ll be even smaller.

The pleasure of reading, which natty older gentlemen complain is lacking in our culture, must be in the musical harmony I heard reading the documents and murder reports in Doctor Fine’s mad and orderly archive.

It’s not that reading was lacking, but that people weren’t reading what their parents read. Just consider the furor that this book is raising, not because young people weren’t reading but because they were reading the wrong thing. Like that time I almost got into a fight with an older colleague over the value of graphic novels. Really? Your worst fear is that your students would rather read Death Note or Black Butler than The Canterbury Tales? What if they never stepped foot in a library or read anything at all? Wouldn’t that be worse? And isn’t that happening? In the place where I used to live in the Midwest, the libraries only serve people who live in the cities. If you live in the county, but in a small town or village outside of the two main cities, you have to spend $75 to get a library card. People in the rural areas are unlikely to be able to afford that, or to prioritize it. I may have ended up spending more than that at the used bookstore, but it wasn’t all in a lump sum. This is just one of the ways that American society punishes people for being poor. If a kid lives out in the country, where cell towers are few and internet signal is weak, his only access to information is through his school library, and teachers are often so pressured to spend every moment of class time preparing to meet state and national standards that they don’t have time to take their classes to the library. Kids can go to the library before or after classes begin, but if students ride the bus, they arrive at school with only a few minutes to get to class and they have to leave immediately after classes end. Again, no time for the library. In that part of the Midwest, access to information is limited to children whose parents can afford to live in the city. How are we supposed to have an educated populace if we restrict who can use the library, or if we dictate which books are to be read? I think we’ll be much better served if we teach children that the world is knowable and available to them and that learning is interesting and rewarding than if we explain patiently to them all the metaphors in Chaucer or lock them out of the library because their parents are poor farm workers.

There and then, as here and now, the conservatives blame foreign influences for the natural changing of culture. Trump’s immigration policies show a great deal of prejudice and a great deal of ignorance about how our country actually works. We’re in a less extreme version of what’s happening in Saudi Arabia: as higher education becomes more available, fewer Americans are taking ‘vocational’ positions. We are expecting a produce shortage soon, because most of the fruit pickers in California are being deported and Americans are not willing to take those jobs. We’ve been conditioned to believe that we won’t get hired for that work, and that we’re too good for that sort of manual labor anyway. You want to get rid of the people doing the lowest paid work? Okay. That means that pretty soon we’ll have no electricity, all the toilets will be clogged, there won’t be any good fruit, and new construction will grind to a halt. In Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes there’s a janitor at the library who spends half the night reading the books after the building is closed to the public. This character felt unrealistic to me in a way that I wish he didn’t – he combines a lifelong love of learning with a contentment to work in a low-paying job that doesn’t require an education. We invest education with this sense of vocation, as if I have a duty to work in the field of literature because I have a degree in it. And now I’m unfit to do manual labor because employers expect me to be too snobbish to do the work. We need to instill a sense of pride in all sorts of work, and relax our expectation that every American needs to go to a four-year university. We need plumbers and construction workers, and right now we need them more than we need more English teachers (a dime a dozen, we are). We need to forget this idea that the life of the mind and the work of the hands are incompatible, and raise up more young students to become like Bradbury’s janitor.

Drifting back to Pamuk. Protagonist does finally find Mehmet, living under a new name and copying the book for select friends and acquaintances. His life is like that of the monks before the printing press, writing the scripture over and over again.

What I do might appear simple, but it requires great care. I keep rewriting the book without missing a single comma, a single letter, or a period. I want everything to be identical, right down to the last period and comma. And this can only be achieved through inspiration and desire that is analogous to the original author’s. Someone else might call what I do copying, but my work goes beyond simple duplication. Whenever I am writing, I feel and I understand every letter, every word, every sentence as if each and every one were my own novel discovery. So, this is how I work arduously from nine in the morning until one o’clock, doing nothing else, and nothing can keep me from working.

His encounter with Mehmet closes this portion of his life, and I felt like it would have been a good close to the book, but like Mulholland Drive, just when it ought to end it doesn’t, and a dozen years go by in the course of a few pages, and there are fifty more pages that tell about Protagonist’s life when he’s my age, and he goes on another, shorter quest to find out about the book. He reads all the source material, disappointed to find out how much of The New Life is based on La Vita Nuova, and then tries to track down another source of inspiration, the New Life candy wrappers that were around when he was a child. Throughout the book he seeks The Angel, and at first he identifies her with Janan, and later he identifies her with the angel on the candy wrapper, and he finally realizes that The Angel of Desire is really The Angel of Death. There’s been a conflation of Eros and Thanatos since the beginning, experiencing a new life while looking for bus crashes. I suppose there’s some accuracy to the idea that change is a sort of death, but I don’t think that literal death is necessary. Change is one of the characteristics of life; Death is an existence that does not change, where nothing is desired.

As I implied earlier, there is a lot of bitterness in this book. The conservatives long for death so much that they are actively killing the people who disagree with them, and the adherents to the book find madness and death. There are a few, very few, who can give the book a place in their lives without letting it flood everything and take away the good things they had, but our protagonist ends up feeling betrayed by both sides. He’s serious about that line, ‘the world is a cruel place.’ He describes the Turks of his peer group as being like himself, hollow shells of adults who are too tired by the conflicts they live among to do anything toward resolution, change, or happiness.

I wonder if a big part of my problem with this book and the similarities with my own society is my disenchantment with materialism. Here and now, as there and then, most people’s life is about things, whether books or houses or furniture or ornaments or clothes or whatever. The identity of the characters, and even of the book, is unfixed and mutable, while things remain the same. When protagonist borrows some old books, unread for more than a decade, the old woman who owns them asks him to return them quickly so they don’t leave her with an empty shelf. Books containing ancient wisdom and original thought are treated as mere knickknacks. I’m holding onto books that I haven’t read in years, but it’s because they’re hard to find and they mean important things to me. Her books are a reminder of the dead husband who loved his books more than he loved her, but she likes the way they look on the shelf. I suppose I see my books as living things, dear to me because of their uniqueness, and not things like a glass unicorn. They’re not status symbols or proof of wealth. Considering how much money I spend on books that I could be devoting to other things, they’re rather a proof of poverty.

I suppose what I’m saying is, this isn’t a happy book, and it reminds me of all the things in the world that I’m not happy with. If you want a happy book, read something else. If you want to be convinced that people are all basically the same, regardless of time or place, and the same dramas keep getting acted on different stages, by all means. Read this book and compare it to the news from the United States. Collectively, humanity does not learn quickly.

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.