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Umberto Eco's The Prague Cemetery is a historical novel about how novels make history. As with Baudolino, Eco chooses a focal point through which to bind disparate events, this time in the latter half of the 19th century (Risorgimento, Paris Commune, Dreyfus Affair, Protocols of the Elders of Zion), the protagonist, Simone Simonini (yes a simonist on the side, but primarily a forger under cover of notary, "falsifying legal deeds"), being the only invented character aside from a handful of minor ones. As with Foucault's Pendulum, secret societies, esoteric knowledge and conspiracies are in play, but here more as made use of by secret services, and more plot-driven (well, story-driven; plot a contrivance atop it). The novel takes on the guise of its forerunners, down to repurposing engraved illustrations from the period; the settings also suggestive (e.g., Simonini's front as a dealer in junk), itself suggesting the ironies inherent to its construction (Eco's remark about striving to create the most reprehensible character evah is of the same tenor as "I felt like poisoning a monk" driving his first novel).

A bit of fair use from Robert Gordon, TLS 18.2.11 (subscriptionly): "As we expect from Eco, this work of teasing historical pseudo-reconstruction combines an intriguing philosophy of history with an elaborate set of reflections on narrative and the nature of fiction. [...] It is in the exploration of the literary genesis and genre of the Protocols where novel and history meet most rewardingly. Eco argues that the power of the Protocols is derived from its deep links to the popular fiction of the day. Simonini calculates that those elements will make the work ring true, because they are loosely familiar from stories that are in the air and we take as true only what we already know. [...] Simonini finds the Ur-texts of his vision of conspiracy and ritual in the Prague cemetery early on in the novel, in Dumas père’s Joseph Balsamo and Eugène Sue’s Mystères du peuple. Simonini’s discovery is a reflection of Eco’s: Eco has claimed as his own the tracing of this line of genealogy behind the Protocols."

This won't be everyone's cuppa (some don't like the way his erudition wears, though more lightly in this instance[1]); it's not MAO's, at this writing updates there stale, so including links to Joshua Lustig [+], Theo Tait [-], Sam Sacks [+], and to a fellow bookchat fan; the site hosting the bookchat has added an interview with the translator and established an Umberto Eco wiki.

[1] an instance of inside-jokey throwaway allusion, given the underground setting criminal and otherwise: p332 Salon Adam: "Money, high politics and culture graced the house in boulevard Poissonnière (later in boulevard Malesherbes) ...": not only transiting from fishmonger to encyclopedia enabler, but also Paris Mètro stations recently opened (change at Opèra) ...

PS read immediately after Eric Chevillard's Demolishing Nisard (Jordan Stump), a delenda est to end all delendae sunt; furthermore, I think that it served as an apt appetizer.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good read, and interesting point about Eco refiguring the illustrations in the same manner as all the texts he usually quotes from and also as the authors of the Protocols treated the texts they pilfered.


9/11/11 03:58  

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