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Onyx reviews: The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

A recent series of television commercials feature a character playing the part of "mayhem," an agent of chaos and mischief who causes damage that may not be covered by a cut-rate insurance policy. The protagonist of The Prague Cemetery is a similar agent, claiming responsibility for much of the mayhem in the latter part of the 19th century in Europe.

According to Umberto Eco, Colonel Simone Simonini is his only fabrication. The events he recounts are true, and the remaining characters are either drawn from history or are amalgamations of historical figures required to serve dramatic purposes. Familiar figures like Garibaldi, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Alexandre Dumas populate the book's pages, along with many others who will not be known to every reader.

Simonini started his professional career as an apprentice to a man who produced documents on demand for whomsoever had the money to pay for his services. As his skill develops he surpasses his mentor and uses his talent to destroy him. Simonini develops an odd philosophy about forgery: is something a fake if, by all rights, the fabricated document should exist? A man should have a birth certificate, for example. If he doesn't, that is simply an oversight that Simonini has no compunction about rectifying. He also chooses not to question anything his clients tell him. Doubting their veracity would serve no one and only interfere with his business.

The book recounts Simonini's life, starting in Italy, where he wrote politically slanted accounts of the unification movement before his actions caused him to flee Sicily for Paris, where he lives out the rest of his corrupt life. In Eco's eyes, Simonini is the "most cynical and disagreeable" character in the history of literature. Indeed he is a corpulent man who sates his vast appetite at every turn (describing his meals in intricate detail). He has no friends, only a network of co-conspirators, any of whom he would (and does) throw over at a moment's notice if necessary. He is prejudiced against a wide array of ethnic, religious and national groups (including the usual suspects: the Masons, Jesuits, Templars and most especially Jews), and has a total aversion to anything sexual. He comes by his anti-Semitism naturally—his grandfather (a real person, Eco assures readers) was the author of documents that instigated hatred against the Jews.

As the 19th century draws to a close, there is much call for his services. Nations are developing and to further their ends they often need to spread information or disinformation about their rivals and foes. Conspiracy theories intricate enough to confound Dan Brown abound. Simonini serves as a double (treble even, perhaps more) agent, a scam artist, a master of disguise, a mercenary, a go-between for officials who need plausible deniability, and a murderer. He knows how to find thieves and bombers and radicals to muddle political matters. As with the aforementioned "mayhem," Simonini is given a hand in many of the major controversies of the day, including the Dreyfus Affair. He is motivated by avarice and hatred. 

Though Simonini produces many fictitious documents, the most important is a series of accounts of a (fictional) meeting that supposedly took place in the eponymous graveyard. Here, rabbis from around the globe allegedly met to discuss a plot to take over the world. The books and pamphlets that Simonini fabricate (often copying passages from people who plagiarized other plagiarists in a variety of languages dating back to Sue's The Wandering Jew) are the foundation of the growing anti-Semetic movement in Europe. He rewrites his account of the meeting several times, altering details to fit the purposes of different clients. Because the story appears so often in so many different forms, it is taken as fact. One false document corroborates another. Ultimately these fluid "minutes" of a fictitious meeting become the basis for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which were used by the Nazis as a justification for the Holocaust. This is a manifestation of a theme that has appeared in much of Eco's fiction: the fabricated cabal that becomes real the moment someone conceives of it.

The Prague Cemetery is illustrated with reproductions of period pamphlet covers, line drawings and other artwork, perhaps to lend it an air of verisimilitude. The structure is perplexing and complex: a series of diary entries from two men working in the same journal: Simonini and a cleric named Abbe Dalla Piccola. The men live in different but connected rooms in the same building, though they never encounter each other. It is not a spoiler to reveal that they are actually aspects of Simonini, whose personality split after some traumatic incident. Yet they treat each other as distinct and remind each other of incidents that only one "person" was present for. Naturally, the two men have different opinion's about Simonini's stock in trade, which allows them to comment on his ethics from opposing viewpoints. 

Sitting on top of this back-and-forth discussion is a capital-N narrator who self-referentially and metafictionally says, "To be frank, if it were not for the fact that these pages refer to events that actually took place, such alternations between amnesiac euphoria and dysphoric recall might seem like a device of the Narrator." In a sense, the book is a series of psychotherapy sessions of the sort advocated by a certain psychologist of Simonini's acquaintance named "Froïde" intended to get to the bottom of their schism. The split personality scenario is repeated in the book, especially in an elaborate set piece involving a comatose woman who Simonini uses to perpetrate another of his frauds.

If a document as inflammatory and demonstrably false as The Protocols could be taken as fact by people like Henry Ford, what does that say about the other writings and sources that are relied up on to assemble a historical picture of a time? Simply because something is "confirmed" by its appearance in a seemingly unrelated document does not necessarily imply that the common information is the truth. History is written by the victors, according to a popular quote, but verifying the source of this truism has been muddied by the preponderance of misinformation on the internet. It has been attributed to Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Goering, among others. All this noise makes it harder to get at the truth and a lazy researcher might take the numerous hits indicating a certain source as being indicative of veracity.

The Prague Cemetery is a difficult book. Simonini and his cohorts are despicable people and there is no single character a reader would want to spend any amount of time with. The relentless vitriol and anti-Semitism is hard to palate but that, after all, is the point. The Protocols of Zion were so vague in their language that they could be applied to any number of circumstances, and readers will identify contemporary social changes that could be interpreted (uncomfortably) as the predicted outcome of the fictional cabal described within its pages.

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