Umberto Eco The Prague Cemetery
I have been looking forward to Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery for months, and yesterday it finally arrived in my hands, a hard-bound tome of joy. I enjoy Eco for many reasons. He is fabulously erudite and interested in the world. He is a writer who does not stay mentally quiescent, but is always engaged, thinking, exploring. Yet he does not fall into the trap I think James Joyce is prey to; he does not engage in academic or intellectual trickery in order to maintain a divine position above and beyond his readers. As a novelist, he respects his craft and his audience.
This said, I admit that the challenge of Eco is not for every reader. The Name of the Rose , his breakthrough novel, is on its surface a mystery set among medieval monks, but it is also far more than that. It is an epic treatment of power, faith, and knowledge, demanding that the reader, in order to get the most out of the novel, learn something of the disputes of that bygone era, especially the Donatist heresy. I appreciate this journey of scholarship wed to entertainment, but there are those looking for far less in a book, and they will find easy satisfaction elsewhere. I have never read Eco and escaped without a bit of knowledge, a concept or an illuminating thought, that I did not have when I began him.
The Prague Cemetery unites a few of my favorite themes in one story. As a student of the Holocaust and modern genocides, I am deeply concerned with hate as a structuring element in human societies and perception. This novel, focused on the creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion , that manifesto of hate, that hoax that has killed, certainly addresses my concerns. It is also about the power of narrative, and our use (or misuse) of it. As Eco expressed in a series of lectures published as Six Walks in the Fictional Woods , we want the world to make sense, and in attempting to make the real world a rational, logical, structured one, we use the devices of story-telling to create narratives of the world. We edit existence into a tale that is both compelling and utilitarian. Conspiracy theories are popular and effective because they are a writing of the world, powerful narratives that explain everything in a frame that dispenses with external verification, like a good novel. The appeal of the conspiracy theory conspires with pre-existing prejudices and biases to create a singular answer to all that occurs in the world. It is all them , whoever they are. Believers in conspiracy theories in their faith realize a gnostic superiority over unbelievers: they know, they are in possession of a secret truth. A final theme of great importance is that of the power of art, which is inextricably connected to the function and reality of knowledge. What do we know, and how do we know that the explanatory system we have developed and to which we are attached is true? If fiction is an artifice, a man-built structure, and nothing more than that, so that all constructions organizing our relationships with the world and with knowledge are fictions, what constructions are valid and how do we detect the invalid ones?
I am savoring Eco's The Prague Cemetery . I am thinking and following sidelines as I read. I am remaining open to the text. This discussion of the novel will, therefore, take up several entries. Today I will focus on the first 46 pages, beginning with the quote preceding the novel, taken from an Italian journalist of the 1800s, Carlo Tenca:
'Since these episodes are necessary, indeed form a central part of any historical account, we have included the execution of one hundred citizens hanged in the public square, two friars burned alive, and the appearance of a comet--all descriptions that are worth a hundred tournaments and have the merit of diverting the reader's mind as much as possible from the principal action'.
Is this a perceptive quote on history, on the story of the past as he retell it in the present? Is it a warning regarding this novel, the story we will be told and the man who is to tell it to us? Perhaps. Certainly I can see that in history an obsessive love of the detail, without attention to the hole in which the detail occurred, had place, was cast as cause or consequence, can lead to some rather strange, anomalous perceptions. However, in the context of this placement at the beginning of a novel of conspiracy, I would say that this shows us the conspirators mind--that everything you see hides the reality, the secret he knows, which is the true meaning of the world's narrative.
- A passerby on that gray morning
It is March 1897 at the place Maubert, once a center of University life, now a decayed home to criminals. At the end of an alleyway there is a junk shop filled with things no one would want to buy, and which the owner would quote insanely inflated prices for if one should inquire. Up the stairs, away from the shop, there is a well-appointed office and a bedroom looked down upon by two large canvases, the Muse of History and the Muse of Comedy. In the office, our Writer is writing in front of the only window the manuscript which our Narrator, a separate being, will occasionally summarize to keep the story moving along, sensitive to the Reader's need not to be bored. The writer does not yet have a name, but we begin reading his story without it. He does, however, share haunts and habits with criminals, disguising his true business, his means, and, perhaps, even his manner.
- Who am I?
We are reading a diary, an attempt by an older man to sort through his days and discover the nature of his soul, his identity, for this man has forgotten. There are huge gaps in his knowledge of his days, his actions, his friends and his enemies. The date is March 24, 1897, and this man, our writer, remembers only that he hates. And what he hates seems to embrace the whole of humanity: the great triumvirate of conspiracy theorists--the Masons, the Jesuits, and the Jews,--but also the Germans, the French, the Italians, etc. All humanity is labeled, defined, and disposed of, assigned characteristics according to the label that detail the odium in which they are held. His single honest love is food. It is certainly not women, a class of people with whom he has no physical or social contact, beyond a single memory of a Jewish woman in Turin, a woman he identifies at this early juncture as a whore but of whom we will hear again. Desire and corruption, fear and power, mingle and merge in his mind as attributes he alternately finds in himself and in the hordes of enemies, his fellow men and women, outside.
Our writer is embarrassed, "as if I were baring my soul, at the command of--no, by God, let us say on the advice of--a German Jew". Hatred is learned, or at least one learns whom to hate from others, in our writer's case first of all from his grandfather. It is his grandfather's description of the Jew that is his Jew, a nightmare that he takes as an accurate representation of reality. In the Jew, his grandfather has placed all the vices of all nationalities. He gave his grandson nightmares, filled his dreams with malicious Jews, all of whom the boy (and the man) believe to be real, though "I have never met one, except the whore from the Turin ghetto when I was a boy…and the Austrian doctor". We will return to the Turin woman later.
He hates the Germans, drunken beasts with a vague language, and the French, with whom he nevertheless has chosen to identify. He hates the Third Republic in which he lives. He hates the Italians, though he was born in Turin to an Italian nationalist and a Savoyard mother. "The Italian is an untrustworthy, lying, contemptible traitor", modeled on their only real government since the Roman Empire's fall, the clergy. There are no people free from this misanthrope's venom, nothing that is not muddled and corrupt. The most attention, however, is paid to the great triumvirate of conspiracy: the Jews, the Jesuits, and the Masons.
What do we learn through this man's litany of hatred? We learn that he is cynical, separate, trained into his misanthropic delight in evil by a grandfather in Italy who remained true to a dead epoch, and that he has no healthy connection to women. He remains separate from his fellow humans, all these people whom he hates without knowing, the denizens of the streets and bordellos whom he watches without engaging. His interest in women, reflected in the degree of his rejection of them, anticipates his own rejection by them, and is thus animated by fantasies of revenge, of war upon Eve's daughters, of cunning and sadism. His password, the word which purchases entry into his office and his true business and calling, for he is a forge, is "Tissot", a reference to a Swiss physician and writer of manuals on health for the public, whose first great work taught the dangers of masturbation.
In a phrase that combines Catallus and Descartes, our writer says: "They say that the soul is simply what a person does. But if I hate someone and I cultivate this grudge, then, by God that means there is something inside! What does the philosopher say? Odi ergo sum . I hate therefore I am". Hatred does not grow neglected, but is an attitude he cultivates; he puts effort into his antipathies, and keeps them fresh. The work of his soul, the substance of his being, is that he hates completely, utterly, with all his energy.
This writer is one of the most odious figures in modern fiction. He reveals nothing to redeem him, no spark of compassion or feeling that makes him less monstrous. However, he is at the same time, quite a small man, a forge whose art is deception and manipulation, an artist of the possible, fulfilling the desires of others through an architecture of lies.
"It's a marvelous thing creating a legal deed out of nothing, forging a letter that looks genuine, drafting a compromising confession, creating a document that will lead someone to ruin. The power of art…to be rewarded by a visit to the Café Anglais."
The villain is a creator of destruction, paid in food. There is something of Hieronymous Bosch in this character, something so grotesque that it almost exceeds imagining. Who is he? That is his mystery, which we will solve with him, accompanying him through his gaps of memory, his amnesia which indicates some trauma. But we do not know yet that there is any trauma to discover, or only more of the same hatred and dependency we have already witnessed.
He has a name, our writer, 'Captain' Simonini, and an age, 67 years old. He has habits, the assumed character of a military man fallen in the world. What he lacks are events, what he did and when, with whom and to whom. He faces the peril of encountering people who were in the same event, part of the same world, but who do remember what he does not. And he can only suspect that these events have some element of duplicity, of threat, to them from his setting and vague intimations from his misted memory of threat and danger.
Into his mystery steps another. He finds a cassock, the disguise of a confederate, the cast-off of a real priest, or his own? He does not know. He purchases consecrated wafers from an old woman who knows that he is the man to sell them to, but he does not know why. He finds his corridor of disguises and, at the end of it, a small room with a sheet of paper describing the confusion of an Abbé Dalla Piccola, the owner of the cassock. And, Simonini is convinced he and Piccola share a body, are the same person, whoever that person may be. They are both on the run, they are both afraid, and they both know something is very wrong. The Abbe's notes make him aware of a name: Diana. But who belongs to that name?
- Chez Magny
Thinking of loss of memory brings memory back. Simonini remembers a place, a series of conversations with medical men at a restaurant concerning hysteria, specifically concerning the work of Charcot in hypnotism and the case of Felida.
Let us pay attention to our writer's interactions with his setting, this restaurant and the men of science who eat there. He indulges his appetites alone, as do the men of science, and here, in this solitary habit, he creates a parallel, a connection, to men of science, casting himself as a quasi-scientist, a man who studies human nature, as do these men with their interest in Charcot's groundbreaking work with hysterics, the theatre of illness. However, he qualifies his connection to these men: "Listening doesn't mean trying to understand. Anything, however trifling, may be of use one day. What matters is to know something that others don't know you know". Everything may be of use; everything contributes to his business as a forge, to his creation of false realities.
Who are these doctors? There is a Dr. Du Maurier, jealous of the attention received by Dr. Charcot. Du Maurier, the name suggests the novelist Daphne Du Maurier, author of Rebecca , the great gothic tale of the two Mrs. Winters, also a novelist who was plagued by accusations of plagiarism regarding this novel and her short story which became Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds . Falsehoods echo through everyone and everything in this story, this tale by our forge. There are Drs. Bourru (which means 'surly') and Burot, its homophone, who follow Charcot's experiments, but counter them with their own experiments using 'magnetic' materials, in the forger's words "two imbeciles who tormented poor lunatics with injurious substances". There is, as the subject of their debates, the case of Felida X, given to the world by Dr. Etienne Eugene Azam (1822-1899) as a doublement de la vie , in which a woman exhibits two selves, one unaware of the other. Felida in her normal state believed she was a member of a satanic conspiracy, while her other self, aware of Felida's delusions and misbehavior, performed penance for her. Felida did not know of her penitential self; this self appeared as she 'slept', entered an hysteric state.
From Du Maurier the forge learns of an interesting case, that of an orphan girl, Diana, who the doctor is caring for, despite the funds paying for her care having run out. Diana behaves as did Felida, suffering from similar delusions and a similar pathology. The forge arranges for Du Maurier to welcome an abbe of his acquaintance, Della Piccola, interested in providing help to such orphans. We have learned a little more, been given some interesting parallels and routes into the real history of the time, and yet know as much as we did before. There is a Diana, and she is known to both the abbe and the forge, who may very well be a single person. The forge is undergoing amnesia, as a hysteric might, and a possible doubling. Is the Abbe his penitential self?
Another recursive meeting occurs, for it is here, at Chez Magny, that the forge met "the Austrian (or German) doctor" he mentioned at the beginning of his writing as the one under whose command, or rather advice, he felt compelled to write. In the most obvious intellectual trick of the novel, this Viennese doctor is Dr. Freud, whose name the forge twists into Froide, meaning cold in French and nothing at all in German. He does this often, translating foreign words, names, and customs into their French homophone or addressing them obstinately through 'French' customs and habits. Everything about this young foreign physician passes through the filter of the forger's hatred and bias, so that he must find out if he is correct in assuming him to be Jewish, guessing that he is from the fact that he is German and "all Jews who live and make money in Paris have Jewish names" and from his nose. The doctor's civility is discounted as "slimy", some form of trickery, because he is Jewish and so it must be false. His facility with languages is discounted, and evidence of his assimilation to the society around him malevolent, evidence of a sinister purpose and innate hypocrisy. The young doctor's mind is not focused on sex, for he is flushed with a successful social engagement with his teacher, Charcot, and garrulous, but the young forge attributes sexual obsession to Freud as they converse, imagining what he thinks must occur in the young doctor's Jewish mind. Freud, however, is rather more interested in cocaine and its wonders than women and theirs at the moment. And the forge makes his connection with the doctor by offering to obtain good quality cocaine for him, conscious that the doctor does not suspect him of having less than honorable intentions or less than respectable ways of gaining the desired product.
Despite himself, the forge finds that he enjoys conversing with Freud/Froide more than he does with his countrymen, Bourru and Burot. In discussing the case of Diana, Freud reveals to him his theory of the talking cure in allowing access to the true cause of such displays, the original psychic trauma buried by amnesia, buried by the patient. How can our hater react to such a theory of healing but by turning against its author, casting Dr. Freud once again in the comfortable roles his hate assigns to Jews, assigning malevolent motives of race to him: the Jewish doctors, infiltrating medicine, to become the new father confessors, replacing the Jesuits as masters of Christian souls.
In the present, a man with missing portions of memory, the forge does not know what has happened to Freud, but thinks in his theories of a talking cure there is something he may use. He will attempt to resurrect the past through confession, but not to man or priest, but to paper: the medium of his falsifications will be his route to truth. He closes the junkshop and prepares to begin his journey in search of his past, in the cell he has created for himself with his disguises and his inks, eating little and drinking much.
What can we make of the story so far? Santonini the forge falsifies more than documents; he falsifies life. He is an Italian who has made himself a Frenchman and an officer. He keeps disguises, for fun or for profit. He resents, distrusts, and hates a world in which the old confines, the old categories, no longer keep men apart, divided and segregated, as they should be, for the threat Froide/Freud represents, and his stubborn insistence to get foreign names wrong, is the threat of assimilation, of joining together, of participation. Somewhere, there is a woman, Diana, and she may be mad. Somewhere there is an abbe, and he may also be the forge. We know that the forger's hatred, his soul's activity, is rooted in a past not his, but his grandfather's, and that hate is a faith, requiring no proofs, no evidence, and having no reason.
More by this Author
I come into the section of Simonini's Italian adventures less than well prepared, so I may relieve you of a little legwork by providing my own research notes here. I have an interest in European history, and if this...
What could unite all the disparate elements we have encountered in The Prague Cemetery ? Only conspiracy, created, manipulated, and merging with the true, and so it is. If Simonini is his own dupe, believing his...
A brief examination of the anonymous 9th century Irish Gallic Poem, "The Old Woman of Beare".