There’s a chapter in Alexandre Dumas’s most famous work, The Three Musketeers, in which the conniving villain of the piece, the pitiless Milady, is chased down on a dark and stormy night and executed without either fair trial or last rites. On first read and subsequently, I’ve found the whole section, which is in many ways the culmination and triumph of the novel’s lengthy and discursive narrative, rather more than a tad difficult: the implacability of my erstwhile heroes, the gothic ugliness of the setting, conspire to rob the protagonists of my sympathy. There is something too grim for my tastes, too remorseless, about the demonisation by the musketeers of their antagonist. In the face of their hatred, they seem to lose their moral bearings.
Umberto Eco places this effect far earlier in his new novel, The Prague Cemetery – which takes another of Dumas’s novels, Joseph Balsamo, as one of its founding texts. It begins with an arresting explosion of racist invective. Perhaps the shock of the bile and poison spilled over the page is less in the idea that it was once (is still) believed, but in reading it on a page unyellowed by the passage of time: Simone Simonini, the protagonist of The Prague Cemetery for whom we immediately rather than belatedly lose all sympathy, is an anti-semite of fulsome proportions, and Eco revivifies the full horror of his beliefs, shared by many throughout the course of his narrative, by pulling them from the 19th-century texts which act as the novel’s source material, and placing them on a freshly-turned 21st-century page.
This willful transgression has rightly discomfited many critics. In the Observer, Peter Conrad worried Eco would be misread: “Would it bother him if … credulous readers missed his postmodern irony and took The Prague Cemetery a little too seriously?” In the Jewish Chronicle, meanwhile, David Herman fretted about relativism: “One of the accusations made against postmodernism has always been that its playfulness trivialises real history and real suffering.” Most famously, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, labelled Eco a “voyeur of evil”.
There is something in all this: The Prague Cemetery is the story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, perhaps the most damaging forgery in all of history, and its emergence from a century’s worth of conspiracy theory and bigotry. Eco does not spare us the details: “My grandfather described those eyes that spy on you, those unctuous smiles, those hyena lips over bared teeth, those heavy, polluted, brutish looks, those restless creases between nose and lips, wrinkled by hatred, that nose of theirs like the beak of a southern bird” [pg. 5]; he reproduces, at regular intervals, contemporary cartoons of Jewish men and women, the lurid caricatures of the most racist of artists; and, later in the book, a main character proves to be the Frenchman Edouard Drummont, the founder and editor of the infamous anti-semitic newspaper, La Libre Parole.
I’m not sure, however, that any topic, however revolting, should be off-limits to a writer so inclined. Certainly, as Conrad seems to fear, The Prague Cemetery speaks to our own age; but it does so less as clarion call to the neo-nazis and thugs emerging from under their rocks as it does a kind of meditation on the ways in which such worldviews came and – crucially – still come to proliferate. Eco places his novel at the dawn of modernity – Simonini’s grandfather was old enough to remember the ancien regime, the world disappeared by the French Revolution, and his conspiracy theories, which (real history here) he writes in a letter to Augustin Barruel, whose Mémoires pour servir à l’Histoire du Jacobinisme is the first of the novel’s many othering tracts aimed at exploring and explaining the degradations of a new modernity.
For Simonini’s hatred is reserved for all ‘others’ – for Germans and Englishmen, Frenchmen and Italians, Russians and Jesuits, Jews and Jacobins, women, socialists, and homosexuals. His narrative, pieced together by another voice identifying itself only as the Narrator, takes the form of a dialogue between himself and a certain Abbé Dalla Picola, a priest who seems to share not just rooms but elements of a life with Simonini. It is a story, not wholly as satisfying as some of Eco’s other novelistic puzzles, which pivots on the sad story of Diana Vaughan, a woman rather sleazily objectified throughout the book (alas, the demonised others are never given even the smallest of countervailing voice). Vaughan is shown to be a figure not invented by the hoaxer known as Leo Taxil, but in fact a young woman living with a kind of violent bipolar disorder, first treated and then exploited by one of Eco’s many awful hypocrites. As the alter egos of Simonini and Dalla Piccola debate their condition through Sigmund Freud’s suggested medium of the dream diary, The Prague Cemetery, it seems to me, makes a case for a pathological Europe which has likewise sublimated and separated, rather than dismissed and dealt with, its basest urges, its beastliest sickness.
Simonini, trained as a forger under a provincial lawyer, tours Europe in the employ of a variety of secret policemen: he attempts to undermine the work of Garibaldi in Sicily and Naples, double-crosses nihilists on behalf of the Russian authorities, provides the raw material behind the prosecution of Alfred Dreyfus, and is responsible for the suspicious death at sea of the Italian Novelist, Ippolito Nievo. Most significantly, he draws on a century’s worth of anti-semitic rants, novels and tracts to pen the Protocols, which he sells to the Russian secret police – who know they are false, but seek to harness the prejudices of the laity regardless.
In his rather positive review of the book, David Aaronovitch has remarked that, without a strong grounding in 19th century European history (which, you should know, I do not entirely possess), The Prague Cemetery can be hard-going. In part, I think this is the point – most readers will be lost in the detail at some point, and discover that they, like many before them, have only conspiracy theories to guide them. On the other hand, Eco’s argument – his conspiracy theory of conspiracy theories – is fairly plain: that the hypocrisy of the modern state is guilty of encouraging, rather than dispelling, the ignorance and confusion which give rise to bigotry. “We don’t want to repeat the farce of the man in the iron mask,” intones one French authority, suggesting that they’ve been at it for centuries. [pg. 155] A recurrent motif in the book is that truth is distorted into fiction, which is then recycled as fictionalised truth (the meta-textual games Eco plays here are amongst his most exuberant). “The secret service in each country believes only what it has heard elsewhere,” reflects Simonini [pg. 173], confirming what the novel has already shown us – that the most powerful lie is one which confirms a prejudice. The picaresque style, which is rather broad and can often drag, may not be the best vehicle for conveying this message – but here it at the very least does the job, albeit in an uneven sort of way.
Regardless of the formal niggles, in a Europe in which the north resents the south, and the south the north; in which the British veto a treaty and the French spit back that their economy is finished anyway; in which, from Italy to Austria to the Netherlands, far right political movements are again finding a voice; The Prague Cemetery offers a timely anatomy of the European problem. That first substantive chapter, which does so much simultaneously to destroy and revive our connection with its protagonist, is entitled ‘Who Am I?’. In truth, the subject of its screeds is ‘Who I Am Not’. It is that lack of a positive Europe identity, whether proceeding from the jaded cynicism of the elite or the put-upon despair of the poor, that remains the continent’s great enemy – the dark space between known knowns, which is filled by the malicious and the credulous with poison and conspiracy.
“History is a nightmare,” Conrad writes in his criticism of the novel, “and Simonini’s enfevered babbling won’t help us to awaken from it.” It is true that Eco plays a dangerous game in this novel, and he sometimes enjoys rolling the dice overmuch – but it is a game which, knowingly or otherwise, Europe, too, still plays. That makes The Prague Cemetery a necessary, even when imperfect, novel.