The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon, Harvill Secker, RRP£13.99, 448 pages
Umberto Eco has a complicated and subtle interest in the relations between fact and fiction, truth and lies, and the act of storytelling in these contexts. The Prague Cemetery takes this interest into the fictions that make up conspiracy theories, and in forged documents that take on a life of their own. The forgery at the centre of the novel is the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fantasised plot to rule the world, made at dead of night by Jewish tribal leaders in the Prague cemetery. Eco’s book is full of shadowy secret agents and purveyors of misinformation, all of whom, he tells us, are in fact real people, except for the master forger Simonini.
As Eco tells us in his essay on “Fictional Protocols” in his 1994 collection Six Walks in the Fictional Woods, the Protocols are related to other conspiracy theories, such as the secret sect of the Rosicrucians and the “French branch of Freemasonry called Scottish Freemasonry (also known as Templar and Occultist Freemasonry)”. There are conspiracy theories that link Jesuits to the Masons and to the Jews. Eco tells us, also in this essay, that a certain Captain Simonini wrote a letter in 1806 claiming that Mani the prophet and the Old Man of the Mountain (grand master of the secret order of assassins) were Jews and that Masonry had been founded by Jews, who had infiltrated all secret societies. The letter is real but is believed to have been forged by Fouché, Napoleon’s minister of police. Eco’s protagonist is the fictive grandson of this Captain Simonini and has been brought up in virulent anti-Semitism and theories of secret plots.
Eco is also professionally interested in what makes a cult novel. His answer, odd but intriguing, is that cult narratives are disjointed – they work because they are and contain puzzles, because their forms are fissile. In that same essay, he cites Hamlet, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Casablanca – the latter, he says, gains its grip on our imaginations from the fact that the actors did not know the end of the story while they were filming. Eco has written one gleeful cult novel – The Name of the Rose – which had its origin, he has told us, in the fact that he “felt like poisoning a monk”. That book worked because it combined the gripping form of the whodunit and Sherlock Holmes with all sorts of erudite and intriguing information about medieval beliefs and customs. The Prague Cemetery is a knowing attempt to build a cult novel – a new Da Vinci Code – around the unstable and shifting stories of conspiracy theories, cults and secret agents. It has sold millions of copies and has been a bestseller in several countries.
We meet Simonini in Paris in 1897. He sometimes goes about disguised as a priest but there is also a priest who has appeared in a room at the end of a newly discovered corridor in his house. This person is the Abbé Della Piccola and it is not clear, either to Simonini or the reader, whether he is an alter ego of Simonini or a separate person.
Simonini is writing a diary and Della Piccola starts contributing remarks and stories in a different font. At one point in the convoluted plot Simonini kills Della Piccola, which has no effect on his presence in the house. Other slaughtered conspirators also reappear. Not being really alive, they cannot also be really dead.
Simonini confesses he is not interested in sex, though he is inordinately interested in food – he describes vast meals at vast length. He ascribes this to being brought up by priests. He is full of spite and rancour and hatred. He forges various versions of the Protocols – which in reality derive in part, as Eco himself discovered, from real fictions by Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Sue, whose melodramatic styles contribute to this novel. He is also called upon to forge the infamous bordereau, which was discovered in a wastebasket at the German embassy, and led to Dreyfus’s indictment and condemnation.
One problem with The Prague Cemetery is that Simonini is not a fascinating monster – I think of Fagin, of Richard III. He is merely a monster. His account of the Dreyfus debacle is told only from his own point of view – the reader is mazed in spite, melodrama, forgeries to back up forgeries, and has no access to the appalling political tragedy. I see what Eco is trying to do but I do not enjoy it.
The penultimate chapter is “The Final Solution”, a title which on one level is clever – it is a solution in the Sherlock Holmes sense, not in Hitler’s – but at another level is disquieting, even nauseating. There is no powerful narrative engine – the reader gets lost among unhappenings and untruths. The atmosphere is fusty and coagulated. Unreal blood is spilt by the undead. This is a scorpion of a novel. It waves its pincers with menace and is about things that could really hurt. But I am always surprised by dead scorpions, which are papery shells with no blood or soft tissue. This novel is a bit like that.
AS Byatt is author of ‘Ragnarok: The End of the Gods’ (Canongate)