As someone familiar with the publishing industry, I know that one of its edicts is that a novel protagonist should be in some way likeable — if not likable to begin with, at least eventually so, and if not on the outside then there should lie buried some vestige of humanity that the reader can identify with and root for.
- The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco. 464 pages. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $27.
This rule, however, appears to be suspended if you are an acclaimed author who writes a book with philosophical pretensions. Then, you can make your protagonist as unlikable as you please and you will be praised for your acumen. Such is the case for Umberto Eco, whose latest novel, The Prague Cemetery, has a protagonist who is the very embodiment of the loathsome — a virulent anti-Semite, misogynist, glutton, and murderer. Yet most reviewers have not been fazed by this, and have been modestly qualified if not reverent in their responses to the book.
Umberto Eco spent the first and larger part of his career as a philosopher and medieval historian. He became famous with a wider public in 1980 when he was approaching 50 and released his first novel, The Name of the Rose. That book had a superb recipe for a success d’estime that could cross over into a bestseller: a good suspense plot featuring multiple murders, conspiracies, and sexual antics among monks, interspersed with erudite exposition on subjects like medieval religious heresies and the semiotics of interpretation. It’s true that the expository material was over-long and inserted into the text in the manner of a college lecture, but it flattered its readers with the sense that they were reading a serious book, not just a thriller, and it was partitioned enough from the rest of the plot so that one could skip it if one chose. The novel, moreover, was greatly helped by its protagonist, William of Baskerville, a British monk with the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes (ergo: “Baskerville”) who arrives at the Italian monastery where he has been sent to negotiate a politically fraught religious argument, only to find that a murder has taken place that will require his reasoning skill to solve. Baskerville is a humane sage, who represents the first rays of the Renaissance as they have begun to flicker in the gloom of the Dark Ages. He is “likable,” in the terms conventionally required by the publishing industry, and one could imagine Sean Connery in the role even before the book was optioned for the screen.
On the basis of The Name of the Rose, Eco became a household name, albeit a high-brow household one, but it was the first and last of his good books. The expository tendencies that one excuses because the plot is good and the protagonist evocative of Sean Connery become insupportable in subsequent novels, which are weighed down by arcane extraneous matter, and which lack any sense of anidentifiably human, let alone likable, character. Yet these novels were given pass after pass by reviewers, who were, one must assume, intimidated by Eco’s erudition. How else to explain the praise heaped on Foucault’s Pendulum, even as many of the same critics lambasted its far more readable, middlebrow incarnation in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code; on Baudolino, a bulky work that seems a trial run for The Prague Cemetery; on The Island of the Day Before, an ingenious premise sunk by a tidal wave of esoterica; and on The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana — don’t get me started. Eco had, by virtue of his good first novel, joined the ranks of writers like Philip Roth and Jonathan Franzen, who had better records of writing good books before they began writing bad ones, but whose editors grew afraid to edit them even as reviewers grew unwilling to pan them.
The Prague Cemetery, however, is unique insofar as it takes the problem of the post-Name of the Rose books further, appending a morally repugnant aspect to Eco’s problems of prolixity and undeveloped characterization. Not only is the book stuffed with undigested historical, theological, and philosophical material that impedes any suspense, its protagonist is uninflectedly despicable. Moreover, this character is not just central to the plot, he is the voice of the novel; there is no voice, no character of any sort, to challenge him.
The book takes place in a 19th-century Europe overrun with Eco’s familiar conspiracies, leading from the Knights Templar through to the Freemasons and beyond. The events are transcribed by one Simon Simononi, born in the Piedmont (Eco’s birthplace) when Italy is about to become unified. Simonini, a kind of depraved Zelig, crops up in every locale that seems to be historically important over the course of his lifetime. He goes to Sicily with Garibaldi’s army, then to Prague, and subsequently, to Paris, where he works as a spy for, in succession, the Italians, the French, and the Russians. Simonini is an expert forger, whose principal lust is for food rather than sex, and whose contempt for every nationality and group that he comes into contact with is surpassed only by his hatred for the Jews. He becomes entangled in a series of schemes, all of which he manages to link to Jewish conspiracy (he forges a document, for example, that stands behind the Dreyfus affair). These culminate in his forging of that infamous anti-Semitic tract, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which would be used to support Hitler’s “final solution.”
Eco is fascinated by The Protocols; they crop up in most of his books. But The Prague Cemetery is not just an historical contextualization of this heinous document; it is a re-enactment of its creation. The ideas that underpin the work are rehearsed with a kind of voluptuous fervor through the character of Simonini, who in the novel’s denouement is shown writing it. To give a taste of the sort of material that the book trades in, here is an excerpt from early in the novel. It is from a letter written to Simonini by his grandfather, his teacher and inspiration in hate:
But, in my view, [one sect] is the most formidable power today if we consider its great wealth and the protection it enjoys in almost every European state. You understand, sir, I am referring to the Hebrew sect. It seems entirely separate from and hostile to the other sects [who are foes of Christianity], but in truth it is not. Any of these sects need only show themselves as enemies of the name of Christ and it will encourage them, finance them, protect them. And have we not seen it, and do we not see it, lavishing its gold and silver to support and guide the modern sophists, the Freemasons, the Jacobins, the Illuminati? The Jews, therefore, with all the other sectaries, are but a single faction seeking to destroy the name of Christ wherever possible.
Or take a later passage, chosen at random, after Simonini muses on the resilience of the Jews:
It is true that Jews had weak, fragile constitutions, never having trained their bodies or practiced military arts. . . but they lived long, were remarkably fertile (an effect of their insatiable sexual appetite) and were immune from many illnesses that afflicted the rest of humanity, thus making them more dangerous as invaders of the world.
Or the following passage toward the end, where Simonini presents his great forged work to a compatriot:
Remember also that wealthy Jews look with interest at anti-Semitism that affects poor Jews, because it induces kinder-hearted Christians to feel compassion toward their entire race. Read this: “Anti-Semitic demonstrations were also very useful for Jewish leaders, as they stirred compassion in the hearts of certain Gentiles toward a population that was apparently ill treated. This then served to secure much sympathy among Gentiles for the Zionist cause. Anti-Semitism, which took the form of persecution of low-class Jews, helped leaders to control them and keep them in servitude.”
This material may seem farcical when presented this way, in bits and pieces, but as it occurs in the novel, where it is part of a deluge, it becomes head-ache inducing and deeply disturbing. It is presumably Eco’s intention to show how hate, given narrative form by a gifted rhetorician like Simonini, has fueled key historical events and movements (all the characters in the novel, with the exception of Simonini, are based on real figures). But if this is the intention, the result is not only unsuccessful, it works against itself. Eco is one of the fathers of reader-response criticism, a school of literary theory which says that readers bring to what they read the ideas, which is to say, the prejudices, that they already have. Is it Eco’s notion that only people who are purified of all anti-Semitic sentiment will read his book and therefore be immune to the vile rantings of his protagonist? But if readers are already assumed to get the point, why bother to write the book at all? Admittedly, some of Eco’s observations are clever and his narrative net encompasses a wide and eclectic range of historical events and characters, but if this is merely an exercise in witty apercus and the manipulation of historical detail, then the use of anti-Semitic material as its pretext seems tasteless, if not perverse.
Both the Vatican and the Chief Rabbi of Rome have criticized Eco’s novel in moral terms. Ultimately, however, the problem of the book seems to me to be aesthetic rather than moral — or rather, the moral problem has an aesthetic base. Simonini has no depth as a character; he gives us no insight into what made him the diabolical character he is. Unlike Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, who carries on his shoulders the weight of the human condition turned sour by failure and disappointment, Simonini is a cartoon villain, a Joker without a Batman to oppose him. If we as readers are meant to be his opposition, Eco makes this too much of a chore. One simply doesn’t have the stamina, no less the historical reference, to compete with the author’s encyclopedic knowledge.
This book is not bad because it is dangerous; it is dangerous because it is bad. It turns human history, even at its most abominable, into a ponderous, semiotic game. • 16 December 2011