The International Fiction Book Club met the evening of June 20, 2012 to discuss the novel, The Prague Cemetery, by the Italian author Umberto Eco. As moderator, I realized that this fiction might have been difficult for some to navigate. Rich as it is in description and dialogue, it is also dense in characters and plot. Eco draws from history as all the main characters really existed except for his protagonist, Simonini. The many references to real life events can be staggering when characters and plot strategies involve the likes of Garibaldi’s fight to unify Italy, the Dreyfus Affair in France and the forged document supplying the myth behind what became known as The Final Solution - The Protocols of The Elders of Zion.
In order to provide an introduction into this work that might be characterized as fictive truth may be truer than historic renditions, I played the beginning of an audio interview with the author on the Diane Rehm show. Eco reads a letter to the reader, so to speak, that was requested by the publisher in which he examines the various levels by which one can enter into the novel and understand the gist of the progression. One does not have to be familiar with all of the history to comprehend the product of the quote from page 17, “I hate therefore I am”. In Eco’s words, “Simonini exists all around us even to this day”. I also played two other interviews with the author, one audio and one video, that further helped us to focus on the central themes of forgery and myth and how they are created out of paranoia and prejudice.
Eco wrote a fiction because the myths and forgeries are still believed to this day. The truest character is the one who never existed because he embodies all the hate and conspiracy behind the forgery that fueled the Holocaust. Simonini writes a journal because amnesia prevents him from remembering certain events. He gets so caught up in recreating the personas he inhabits as a spy for the Italian secret service, forger to the Russian Secret Police and forger of the memo that was the basis for the conviction of Captain Dreyfus that he invents an alter ego in Abbe Dalla Piccola who, in turn, assumes certain roles that appear to contradict his associations but also reveal a murderer and ruthless schemer who will stop at nothing to achieve his goals.
Our discussion proved lively after all. Though several members admitted to having a rough go during the first half of the book, all but one felt the work rewarding. A good ending led up to by a curious mix of black humor in the second half of the novel proved to assuage those readers that plowed through difficult passages. I also found the book difficult at times but well worth the effort. My favorite reference was from Hugo’s Les Miserables as Simonini recalls the passage when Hugo describes in detail the Paris sewer system. The thought coincides with Simonini’s murder of his alter ego (the symbolism here begs for mercy) when on page 227 he blurts out...”it is not a pleasing experience having to drag a priest through excrement”. Nonetheless, he does what he needs to do.
The question was raised: Did Eco achieve what he set out to do with this book? After considering various thoughts on the subject the consensus was a resounding “yes”. The book is unique and could only have been written by Eco. Though it rewards a maximum effort from the reader, it resounds with vivid imagery and in the end brings dramatic scenes from history to life as seen through a mirror that reflects the dark soul of the forger.
Our next meeting will be Wednesday, July 18th, at 6:30 p.m. in the Blum House when we will discuss The Shadow of the Wind by the Spanish author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón. You may check out a copy at the front desk of the Collinsville Memorial Public Library.
Posted by Jim Krapf, Library Clerk