So far in our Independent Foreign Fiction Prize magical mystery tour, we’ve been to a parallel Japan, Germany, South Korea, provincial China and seventeenth-century Iceland – and today we’re going back in time again, this time to nineteenth-century Italy and France. Who needs a holiday with books like these? I spoil you all, I really do…
The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco (translated by Richard Dixon)
What’s it all about?
We begin in Paris, as an unnamed narrator guides us through dirty, disreputable streets until we enter a shop and peer over the shoulder of an old man. Simone Simonini, an Italian resident for many years in the French capital, is beginning a diary of sorts in order to trawl through the depths of his memory and fill in some puzzling and worrying gaps in his recent history. The reader is informed of Simonini’s past by virtue of reading the pages of this diary; however, it’s not quite as simple as that. You see, Simonini is not the only person using the book to write down his thoughts…
The Prague Cemetery then is a conundrum of a novel, a story told by the unknown narrator, Simonini himself and the mysterious Abbé Dalla Piccola. It’s a dazzling creation, a tale drawing threads from all kind of real-life events and authentic literature to flesh out the existence of our Italian friend. As the trio unfold daring intrigues and devious plots, leading Simonini from the combustible Italian states to a hardly more stable French republic, we begin to suspect that the three people may actually be one and the same person.
In terms of story, The Prague Cemetery is simply about how Simonini, a nerveless forger, a murdering gourmet, a sexless sociopath, becomes caught up in some of the most explosive political and social events of nineteenth-century Europe. Largely owing to his skills as a master forger, he is courted by the secret services of most of the major powers of the time, becoming a spy whose main talent lies in providing people with the information they need – all of it fabricated. The more he lies, the more his reputation grows, as the various services he works for have no real interest in the truth. They are far more concerned with justifying the steps they take against various power groups – the Jesuits, the Masons and (of course) the Jews…
However, if that is not enough, the real concern of Eco’s novel is Simonini and his identity. Early in the novel, we learn of a casual acquaintance, a certain Doctor “Froïde”, and the quest for the truth behind the unholy trinity of voices is definitely a Freudian one. It is clear that a traumatic event has caused the partial amnesia experienced by both Simonini and the Abbé; we’re just not quite sure what it could be. Is it related to Simonini’s forgeries? To the various masonic lodges and cults he becomes involved with? Well, you’ll just have to read it to find out 😉
As well as reflecting actual historical events, the book also contains a plethora of meta-fictional aspects, referring to many books which, after further research, I found were all actually real. One of the central pillars of the plot is Simonini’s story of ‘The Prague Cemetery’, a fictional meeting of the Jewish leaders of the world, which several writers then adapt (or steal!) to both entertain an incredibly trusting audience and justify actions taken by various governments against the Jewish people. There’s definitely no such thing as an original idea in this context, but Simonini shows that original ideas are overrated, especially in an era where communication was not quite as advanced as it is today…
Do you think it deserves to make the shortlist?
Let me get back to you on that… The Prague Cemetery is an excellent book, and the translation is a wonderful one, making it a pleasure to read, but the novel is not perfect. At times, it all feels a little too clever, as if Eco is writing more to show his intelligence than to advance the story. The plot can occasionally flag, especially towards the middle, and there is always the danger, when characters have continual anti-semitic rants, that the author’s intention of condemning these views becomes almost overshadowed by his character’s beliefs.
It’s also a little ironic that in a book which pokes fun at crowd-pleasing, salacious pulp fiction, Eco’s own story actually takes a turn in that direction towards the end of the novel, reminding the reader of nothing more than Victorian ‘sensation’ fiction. Of course, knowing Eco, this was almost certainly intentional 😉
On first finishing the novel, I wasn’t quite convinced, but a few days of unconscious reflection have raised the book in my estimation, so I’ll say that it does deserve to make the shortlist. I don’t think it’ll be a winner though…
Will it make the shortlist?
I’ll stick my neck out and say no, which may be surprising given what I said above! Despite its undoubted excellence, the accomplished translation and Eco’s stature, I have a sneaking suspicion that this may be one which is enjoyed by a minority, even among regular readers of literary fiction. It’ll have adherents who will defend it to the bitter end, but it may also leave a lot of readers cold.
I hope I’m wrong though 😉
One more done and dusted. Stay tuned for the next stop on my virtual tour, when I’ll be heading north again to spend the holidays with a lonely friend – see you then!