Fiction and History--The Prague Cemetery, Part 7

anti-Jesuit cartoon, 1902
anti-Jesuit cartoon, 1902
Jacques de Molay, last of the Templar leaders
Jacques de Molay, last of the Templar leaders
William Hogarth, Sin, Satan, and Death
William Hogarth, Sin, Satan, and Death
Alfred Dreyfus
Alfred Dreyfus
anti-Dreyfus cartoon
anti-Dreyfus cartoon
Jewish cemetery in Prague
Jewish cemetery in Prague
Ron Paul, GOP
Ron Paul, GOP
Sharpe of Sharpe's Rifles
Sharpe of Sharpe's Rifles

Simonini is tired of his moralist companion in narration and memory. The Abbe, he says, should be more like Father Bergameschi, recognizing the realities of life. He is too fond of judging, of accusing. Meanwhile, in the story they have been sharing, the Prague Protocols, Simonini's new versions of the cemetery scene, have grown stale. He needs new material as his first version has become public and escaped him, woven itself into too many texts, too many forms, beyond his control. "How is life possible in a world of counterfeiters?" he wonders.

The Jesuits and Father Bergameschi are most interested in the Masons, but Simonini remains obsessed with the Jews. In his pursuit of both threads of conspiracy, that desired by his employer and that in which he is convinced, he becomes involved with the Russians. We meet Osman Bey, a professional anti-Semite from Serbia, also known as Millinger, Millingen, or Kibridli-Zade. This man has the appearance of a stereotypical, cartoon Jew, and talks to Simonini inside a moving carriage, for he would have their conversation remain private, contributing to the reality of the claimed conspiracy by creating the atmosphere of fear and secrecy, of imminent threat if 'they' know. Osman Bey and Simonini make a deal: Simonini will give Bey information on the Alliance Universelle in return for Simonini's information on the Freemasons.

The Russians employ a number of professional Jew-haters: Osman Bey, Hippolyte Lutostanski, etc. Do they all believe in the conspiracy they claim exists? No, but many do, and for the rest it does not matter that they do not. They make their living on the creation of the conspiracy, on the maintenance of belief in it within the wider public, as a means of power for members of the tsarist government, as a way of hiding true problems by a singular, forceful false one. The parallel to Ron Paul's use of racist diatribes in his newsletters, now disavowed but once a steady income stream for him, is unavoidable: it does not matter in the end whether he truly believed what his name sold, it matters that he allowed his name to be used to sell it.

Simonini and Abbe Piccola the Second are disturbed by a third figure they cannot identify. He disturbs both of them, he is seen, but they cannot place him securely within their story. Simonini suspects he is a Russian. Dalla Piccola suspects he is connected to the Masons. Such a universalist in conspiracy theories and deception as Simonini makes many enemies, and he makes great powers of all of them. Dalla Piccola remembers a Dr. Bataille at Auteuil telling him that they had gone too far with the Masons and giving him a gun. With this gun, Dalla Piccola shoots the intruder on his second visit to the Abbe. When he goes to hide the body in the cellar, where he knows he will find one corpse, that of his namesake, he finds three. There are three corpses awaiting the deposit of a fourth: the Abbe Piccola, another man in clerical garb, and a woman. Is this perhaps Diana?

Let us leave that question unanswered for the moment, and turn our attention to the nature of historical fiction itself. In The Prague Cemetery almost every character Simonini meets and interacts with is historical: a person of that name, bearing the ideas which Eco attributes to him, lived and died in the period of the past which forms the setting of the book. What is the novelist's responsibilities regarding such figures? Does the novelist have any responsibilities at all? What do we as readers expect from historical fiction?

Many of us, I think, expect both too much and too little from historical fiction. The genre itself embraces such a wide variety of texts and approaches: historical romances, war fiction celebrating soldiers and heroes, fictional memoirs and biographies that attempt to bring us into the past. We expect a historical fiction to fulfill both promises in its name: to be accurate to the time and place it claims to inhabit, and to explore this time and place free of the constraints of the provable. Let us take The Prague Cemetery as an example: Simonini is a fictional character, a forge, and it is his fictionality that allows him to move so easily through the layers, the multiple realms, of conspiracy so that he alone can forge the master document of all conspiracy. He is plausible enough that we are willing to accept that within the novel he exists, he is real. We talk about him, analyze him, and judge his morality, his motives, his nature. If we gave him a radio through which he was able to discuss and plan his movements with the help of a malicious twentieth century Nazi, like, say Alfred Rosenberg, we would no longer be in historical fiction; we would be in science fiction, a completely different genre. We expect that historical fiction remain in its setting, that the fictional characters move through a plausible representation of the real world as it once existed.

The difficulty which historical fictions encounter with readers, then, is often based upon the plausibility of their representation of the past. Writers produce historical fiction based upon their own fund of knowledge, and where their fund of knowledge is inferior to the fund of knowledge held by the individual reader, the fiction will fail. This reader will not buy into the fiction. Personally, I often avoid fiction set in World War II Europe. I do not blame the authors of this fiction; I am certain some of them are very talented. But I know too much of the period, and thus find myself picking apart what could not happen, what did not happen, what is anachronistic, wrong, and unsuitable. In this case, my knowledge makes me resist the fiction. On the other hand, I like Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe series set in the Napoleonic era. I know something of that era, a little about Spain, and a bit about the English military of the time, but the limit of what I know allows me to enjoy the fiction. It remains plausible.

What of all these historic men and women in Eco's The Prague Cemetery ? What is his responsibility to them? I think the author's responsibility to real men and real women is a complex one. His responsibility is a negative one--to not mis-represent them. Men and women who were not anti-Semites should not be presented as such. Captain Dreyfus should not be made into a traitor against his country, when we know he was not. The Jesuits should not be shown to be anti-Semitic if they were not. (At the time under discussion, they were, as is easily seen in their publications out of Vatican city). Now, the novelist is not so constrained by history that he becomes a substitute historian: he may structure dialogues that did not happen, expressing opinions the character truly held. This is largely what Eco does. He has historical characters express in dialogue the views they held and expressed historically in writing and deed, thus passing information to Simonini, feeding his great project and masterpiece, the Prague Protocols. It is through this convention, these series of meetings, dialogues, thefts, and transfers, that Eco reveals the complicity of a wide swathe of international society in the production, dissemination, and corruption of discourse present in the Protocols and promoted by them. The Protocols require both contributors and an audience; history provides both, while the character of Simonini, the fictional single man at the center of its manufacture, allows an analysis of the reasons for its acceptance, its power and its true nature, that perhaps would be less available within the chaotic truth of its production and passage through many hands to an official version first put together in tsarist Russia.

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