The Prague Cemetery is Academic and writer Umberto Ecos’ Sixth Novel. It includes his usual themes of intertextuality, history, unreliable narrators and complex grandiose plots filled with conspiracies. The protagonists, a counterfeiting self-serving secret service agent Simonini and a self-righteous hypocritical priest Abbe Piccolo, are suffering from a form of amnesia. They engage in a series of communications via a diary in order to reconstruct their respective pasts so that they and the reader may ascertain whether or not they are indeed the one person.
This method works well and we the reader are privy to series of recollections which span Europe from 1830 to 1898 as the narrators stumble through seminal moments of history such as the unification of Italy, the Paris commune and the Dreyfus affair to name but a few. Factual events and real historical figures are woven into a cohesive fictional narrative which is executed with a deceptive ease showcasing the authors vast knowledge of history.
Throughout the novel Eco skilfully uses this device to playfully merge the respectable literary tradition of the doppelganger and actual historical events with the sensational pot boiler tropes of multiple personality disorder and lurid conspiracies. This gives us a text which easily traverses between high literature and populist writing revealing the distance between both destinations may not be as far as we imagine.
Ever present throughout the tale is the ugly spectre of anti-Semitism which is rightly acknowledged as a persistent and recurring blot on the pages of history. Indeed our narrator or narrators are themselves proponents of Europes shamefully mainstream anti-Semitic neuroses. Eco succeeds in showing us that far from being a unique and exceptionally German endeavour the ideologies which led to the Holocaust were widely prevalent in Europe.
This is not the only comfortable assumption Eco deflates. A major plot point revolves around the counterfeiter Simoninis’ construction of the fictitious protocols of the Elders of Zion the absurdly paranoid text which anti-Semites the world over still reference today to justify their hateful ideologies. Eco skilfully shows us how this text was not anomalous but drew on existing literature and ideas which circulated throughout Europe at the time and were propagated by so called respectable writers. Here we see Eco illustrate the dangers of fiction and how easily it blends with reality. This is a refreshing departure from the usual unquestioned conceit that all literature is inherently positive, uplifting and improving.
In my favourite part of the book the counterfeiter Simonini sketches out a framework for a universal conspiracy theory which contains the elements of an archetypical conspiracy plot where one is free to substitute the conspirators to suit one’s own prejudices. This framework is evident throughout all conspiracy theories and hasn’t much changed since the construction of the protocols. Of course within our modern information rich society surely people couldn’t be duped again? Sadly a quick perusal of the internet reveals the continued prevalence of such theories on various conspiracy websites.
More significantly its outline is apparent in popular fiction such as the Da Vinci code a book which most likely against it authors intentions is taken as fact by many of its more credulous readers as evidenced by the guided tours of sites from the novel and fan websites which breathlessly assert the factuality of Browns fanciful tapestry of conspiracies. In his novel Eco succeeds in showing us how such credulousness has dangerous precedent and may be exploited by the more cynical. The Prague Cemetery is a novel which may be enjoyed as an adventurous romp or may be understood by the more subtle reader as a lesson on the dangers of fiction.