The Prague Cemetery  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Prague Cemetery (original title: Il cimitero di Praga) is the sixth novel by Italian author Umberto Eco. It was first published in October 2010; the English translation by Richard Dixon appeared a year later. Shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2012, it was described as Eco's best novel since The Name of the Rose.

Plot summary

The main character is Simone Simonini, a man whom Eco claims he has tried to make into the most cynical and disagreeable character in all the history of literature (and is the only fictional character in the novel). He was born in Turin in 1830. His mother died while he was still a child and his father was killed in 1848 fighting for a united Italy. He is brought up by his grandfather, an old reactionary who houses Jesuit refugees and hates the Jews - he claims that the French Revolution was planned by the Knights Templars, the Bavarian Illuminati and the Jacobins but behind them all, he says, were the Jews.

Simonini studies law. After his grandfather’s death he is employed by a dishonest lawyer who teaches him the art of forgery. His skills bring him to the attention of the Piedmont Government secret service who decide his skills might be useful to them. Giuseppe Garibaldi with his 'Thousand' red shirts invades Sicily in 1860 and Simonini is sent to Palermo as a spy to report on Garibaldi’s movements after he has taken possession of the Island. The Kingdom of Piedmont cautiously supports the Unification of Italy but is worried that Garibaldi’s fame might eclipse that of their king, Vittorio Emanuele, or worse still, that he might proclaim a republic.

He meets the French novelist Alexander Dumas and Italian patriots Nino Bixio and Ippolito Nievo. Simonini is ordered to destroy some heavily guarded documents in Nievo’s possession. To do so, he blows up the ship on which Nievo is sailing, with the loss of all lives. Simonini has gone too far. He is banished to Paris.

He arrives there in 1861, where the remainder of the story is set. Here he sets up business forging documents in rooms over a junk shop near Place Maubert. He also works for the French secret service as a forger and fixer. Over the next thirty-five years he lays traps for revolutionaries fighting against Napoleon III, provides intelligence during the days of the Paris Commune and forges the bordereau that would trigger the Dreyfus Affair.

All of this earns him enough to pay the bills and to indulge his passion for fine food, but he wants to retire on a decent pension. He hatches a plan to forge what will one day become the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a document that claims the Jews were plotting world dominion. Simonini’s idea is first inspired by an account of a masonic gathering in Alexander Dumas’s novel Joseph Balsamo, and he gradually embroiders it using other sources, each inspired by the other – Eugene Sue’s Les Mystéres du Peuple, Maurice Joly’s Dialogue in Hell between Machiavelli and Montesquieu and a novel called Biarritz by a Prussian secret agent called Hermann Goedsche who used Sir John Retcliffe as a nom de plume.

Most of the novel is in the form of a diary written by Simone Simonini in 1897. He wakes up one morning to find he has lost his memory and suspects something terrible has happened. A few years earlier, at his regular eating place, Chez Magny, he had met a young doctor studying at the Salpêtrière Hospital whose name, he seems to recall, was "Froïde" (or something like that). He had told him about talking cures as a means of overcoming traumatic experiences. Simonini decides to write down all he can remember in the form of a diary, in the hope of regaining his memory.

Simonini works long hours on his life story, falling asleep through exhaustion or an excess of wine. Each time he wakes he discovers that someone has been adding notes to his diary, a mysterious Abbé Dalla Piccola, who seems to know far too much about Simonini’s life. Dalla Piccola has his own story to tell involving Palladism, Freemasonry, devil worship and the Catholic Church, and introduces further historical characters, including Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, Diana Vaughan and one of the greatest hoaxers of the 19th century, Léo Taxil.

Historical background

According to Eco, "the characters of this novel are not imaginary. Except the main character, they all lived in reality, including his grandfather, author of the mysterious message to abbot Barruelo which gave rise to all modern anti-Semitism". Eco goes on to say:

The nineteenth century was full of monstrous and mysterious events: the mysterious death of Ippolito Nievo, the forgery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion that inspired Hitler's extermination of the Jews, the Dreyfus affair and endless intrigue spun by the secret police of different countries, the Masons, Jesuit plots, and other events whose accuracy can't ever be authenticated, but that serve as fodder for feuilletons 150 years later.

Eco infuses the novel with other books as it explores the 19th-century novels that were plagiarized in the Protocols of Zion, and is structured like one. The spirit of the novel is Alexandre Dumas, in particular an intertextuality with his novel Joseph Balsamo (1846).

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Prague Cemetery" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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