Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Draft. Do not quote without permission. Submitted to IRIS.
Review of Umberto Eco: Il cimitero di Praga, Bompiani, 2010.
In an old Woody Allen’s movie, The Sleeper, some scientists in the future try to reconstruct the culture of the past world through the testimony of its only survivor. They show him a series of documents, among which various videos, a centrefold of Playboy, pictures of various political men, chattering teeth and, in the end, a video of Howard Cosell, a famous American sports anchor in the Seventies: “First - the scientist says - we didn’t know exactly what it was, but then we developed a theory: when citizens in your society were guilty of a crime towards the State, they were forced to watch this”…The joke perfectly matches the last Umberto Eco’s literary effort, Il cimitero di Praga: a 523 pages-length torture that could indeed be used as a major punishment to inflict to Italian ex-pupils who still have nightmares about endless school hours dedicated to the Risorgimento, Garibaldi, the expedition of the “Thousands” and Ippolito Nievo. And if this doesn’t seem boring enough for the non-Italian reader, let’s mix it with a conspiracy theory: an intricate plot of the Christian Church and the Monarchic movements in Italy and in France to get rid of Freemasonry and the Jewish that ends up with the forgery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion: A tour de force you wouldn’t inflict to your worst enemy.
The first thing that came up to my mind while reading the book was that once you become a bestseller writer in Italy, then you probably start intimidating your editors, who don’t dare to edit the sacred words of a heavyweight author of the publishing house anymore or, worse, don’t see the point in making the effort, given that they know the book will be sold in any case. And it is true: the book has already sold more than 300 000 copies, will be translated in 40 different languages and the first edition is at its third printing. But, definitely, it is not a good book.
I am not a literary critic, so I will try to avoid appreciations of style and structure, even if I must confess I found it too long, confusing and difficult to read. Rather, I will concentrate my criticism on the content. The plot is so intricate that the author adds a “story-line” at the end of the volume that summarizes the major events in chronological order. We deal with an ignominious central character, captain Simone Simonini, a Franco-Italian adventurer and a forger, whose virulent anti-Semitism goes back to his grand-father. All characters but Simonini are real historical characters, sometimes under their own real name, sometimes under fictional names because they condense more than just one historical figure. Simonini’s grandfather was thus an historical character, one who played a major role in the diffusion of the anti-Semitic poison in the XIX century as the purported author of a letter to the French Jesuit priest Augustin Barruel. Barruel, a counter-revolutionary priest who fled to England during the Revolution, published in 1797 his Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism, a conspiracy theory on the role of a coalition of philosophers, Freemasons and the secret society of the Bavarian Illuminati to overthrow the throne and the altar not only in France but everywhere in Europe. According to Barruel, the plot had been inherited by the Jacobins during the Revolution. After the publication, he received a letter by an Italian military, who claimed he got evidence that the founders of all the secret societies in Europe were Jewish.
Simone Simonini thus grew up as a convinced anti-Semite and decided to devote his life to participating in various plots and conspiracies aimed at destroying the Jewish. A lonely and sinister figure, whose only pleasure is to stuff himself of heavy French cuisine in good restaurants, Simonini has a double, the ecclesiast Dalla Piccola, whose role in the story is pretty confused (Eco says that all the characters but Simonini are real: is Dalla Piccola a real character? I tried to find some traces of his existence on the Web but end up with nothing). Under the Dalla Piccola personality, Simonini infiltrates other anti-Masonic and conservative circles, especially those religious ones who were manufacturing a document showing the horrendous anti-Christian rituals of various Masonic societies.
Although it is clear from the onset that Simonini and Dalla Piccola are one and the same person, the mystery is kept until the end of the novel, which is partly written in the form of Simonini’s journal interrupted at some points by some annotations by Dalla Piccola. An amnesia caused by a sex intercourse with a young woman, Diana, member of a Satanic sect, makes Simonini forget that Dalla Piccola is himself. Following the suggestion of a young Jewish doctor met at the restaurant - an unknown Sigmund Freud visiting Charcot in Paris - Simonini decides to heal his amnesia by writing a journal. The therapy is successful and, while retrieving the memory of the Satanic Sabbat, he ends up realizing that Dalla Piccola and Simonini are just one. The reader should be surprised, but is not.
Simonini’s journal doesn’t spare anything to the patient reader about his life and adventures: trained as a forger by the notary Rebaudengo in Turin, Simonini becomes a spy and is sent by the Savoy Intelligence to Sicily in the wake of thousand of Giuseppe Garibaldi. There he meets the writer Ippolito Nievo, treasurer and lieutenant of the army of volunteers. In order to get rid of some documentation Nievo possesses that could prove of funds bestowed by the Savoy under the table, Simonini causes the sinking of the ship on which it travels Nievo and the death of the same.
Back in Paris, Simonini begins to manufacture a fake document inspired by the feuilletons of Dumas and Sue, first to discredit the Jesuits, then turned to the Jews, which is staged in an alleged secret meeting the night of the rabbis of the various leaders of Jewish communities' Europe in the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, where they expose their plans for world domination and the destruction of Christianity. Another source of inspiration is the French pamphlet written by the satirist Maurice Joly, a Dialogue in Hell between Macchiavelli and Montesquieu, depicted as two diabolical plotters aiming at overthrow the power of the French Monarchy. The document circulates in different hands and under different forms, growing and transforming itself in the final Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Simonini, though, won’t be the author of it, because he sells the material to the Russian Secret Police and delivers it to an agent named Matvei Golovinskij.
While writing his masterpiece forgery, Simonini goes on with side activities as a spy and a counter-revolutionary. He provides the fake documents to condemn captain Dreyfus, then takes part into various terroristic acts to end up with the making of a bomb that will probably conclude his evil career: The journal stops on the date of his last terrorist mission…
Eco’s prowess is the manufacturing of a “fake” with a collage of real existing characters and documents. To make things more confused, Eco fabrics a sort of “counter-fake”, that is, the mirror-side of one of the best-known frauds of our history: the fabrication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. His anti-hero Simonini is at the center of an orthogonal (and fictional as well) plot, aimed at destroying Jewish, revolutionaries and Freemasons. But, of course, as the Protocols are fake, Eco’s fabricated plot is fictional: even if it is based on real characters and documents that reveal the presence in our history of these feelings and fantasies, the international conspiracy against the Jewish, the Jesuits and the Freemasons orchestrated by the Catholic Church is as imaginary as the Protocols are. Suffocated in a Google-erudite archipelago of real facts, books and characters, the simple truth that unfortunately there are no complot-based serious explanations of the major tragic events of our history, seems to sink down. Conspiracy theories have never made good novels, although we all know that they work very well for airport best-sellers. And they are historically untenable, an interesting subject today for sociologists, psychologists and experts of folklore.
So, what all this effort for? I hate ad-hominem arguments, but if I tried to find the most charitable explanation of why a well-thought and sophisticated intellectual such as Umberto Eco has written Il cimitero di Praga, and imposed on his readers the horrendous Captain Simonini, I would be tempted to say that the feeling of being a forger must have floated in the author’s mind, as it is probably the case for all talented and successful people: hence the fascination of writing a story from the “wrong-side”. Eco is an academic who has used his erudition and intelligence to write novels: he must have felt sometimes to be novelist among academics and an academic among novelists. This feeling of misplacement could have motivated this strange literary experiment, perhaps an exercise in perplexity which leaves the readers perplex as well.