There are few, if any, great truths that have sustained themselves throughout human history, but one might be the fact that all information spawns a treacherous sibling: interpretation. The cunning Simone Simonini realizes — after kindling the fire of the Dreyfus Affair through forged documents and polarized media commentary — that what gives his work purpose and binds his fragile society is the simple fact that “each person had seen what they wanted to see in that sequence of events.”
Tucked within a Twitter culture in which every thought and message has been stripped down for easiest consumption and nothing may ever again really be in transit, we might feel very far removed from Simonini’s 19th-century Europe. Umberto Eco, just as he’s done for decades, draws us swiftly back into the throes that strange, shifting world with The Prague Cemetery — and, while the novel’s mainstream selling point might the way in which it fictionalizes the disturbing birth of modern anti-Semitism, it is his treatment of those now-foreign modes of communication that is of true and lasting value.
As Eco kindly informs the reader, Simonini is virtually the only fictional character in The Prague Cemetery, which was first released in Europe in 2010. And by completely immersing his narrative in the primary sources and episodes of history, Eco is very quickly able to tap into the emotions that governed both the current events and common sense of that era. Simonini is man controlled by a virulent sense of Jew hatred handed down to him by his grandfather, and it follows him throughout a long and tumultuous life. As the landscape of Europe changes drastically in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Era, he follows countless morally questionable paths: propaganda journalist during the fight for Italian Unification, government spy in the midst of the Paris Commune, and brilliantly skilled forger for anyone willing to pay. But no matter how many world conspiracies he uncovers (or conveniently invents) for profit, a inner need to free the world from the curse of Jewry always lies beneath the surface.
That deranged mentality is so dark that it could have really disrupted the novel, but Eco turns it into something both more accessible and even more ridiculous by splitting the structure of his work into a tense three-way dialogue. In what (I guess) you could call a psycho-epistolary approach, we read the developments in hindsight, as Simonini recalls his past by writing diary entries — addressed to himself. Or, at least, to his other mental half, Abbé Dalla Piccola, a priest whom Simonini murdered but apparently takes on (first voluntarily, then subconsciously) as an alternate personality for clandestine purposes. The confusion between the two warped minds, as they write to each other each day, is often mediated by the third presence, Eco’s omniscient Narrator. The meta-historical implications drawn out by the classic postmodern tropes that result from these clashes do, at times, bog down the narrative with über-literary commentary, but they also do much to bring life to what is essentially a twisted, chopped-up book of nonfiction.
The frenetic structure is also perfectly suited for what becomes a really masterful presentation of the inner workings of information in a time of barely premodern political and social upheaval. Eco doesn’t just take us for a crazy ride as Simonini creates stories about his employers’ enemies in order to influence public opinion, and he doesn’t just marvel at the vileness of Jew hatred in all its ridiculously conceived forms. He shows us the pen, and the hand that guides it — and he brings the expressions and reactions of both writers and readers to the forefront. As Simonini crafts the bold-face lies set in his Prague cemetery — the documents that would eventually become the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion — we begin to get a really interesting sense of the raw power these words had. A well-crafted note, in the right hands, could become the face of a people, a country, a race. Unlike today’s world of real-time news, in which media snapshots have shelf lives of seconds, Simonini’s words live as seemingly immortal images. And as the mental dialogue shifts between he and Piccola and the Narrator, we find that the one constant throughout is an equally distorted sense of global interaction, in which winners and losers — and the persecuted, and the dead — are chosen by the forger and his distributor. While the impure and propaganda-based dissemination of ideas surely still exists now, looking at its roots creates a welcome shift of perspective.
For all Eco’s flaws of literary long-windedness, it needs to be said that few authors have the touch, and the experience, to make the 19th century feel urgent again. With a cast of characters that includes, but is surely not limited to, Sigmund Freud, Giuseppe Garibaldi, Alexandre Dumas, and Alfred Dreyfus himself, he never lets us forget that we’re looking backward. But Eco’s success here — as in much of Thomas Pynchon’s great historical fiction — lies in the fact that he allows those images of the past to creep up and tap us on the shoulder. By amplifying the oft-forgotten intricacies of the events that defined a culture, he pens his own magical forgery, a beautifully hyper-real portrait of history, which reminds us that while the methods and the faces have changed, questions of mindless bigotry, national identity, and, above all, human communication may always be left wanting for good answers.