Friday, May 18, 2012

The Prague Cemetery, by Umberto Eco

I've not read any of Dan Brown's fiction, being the trend-averse curmudgeon that I am. I know it's been wildly popular and involves a lot of Freemasons. As I was plowing my way through The Prague Cemetery, though, it occurred to me that Eco is probably Dan Brown for uppity academics. Or conversely, Brown might be Eco for Dummies. In the end, my enjoyment of The Prague Cemetery proved purely cerebral. Nothing about the book  pinged my emotions, and it felt a bit like an endurance exercise to finish it. One might well ask, who's the dummy?

Eco's anti-hero is Captain Simonini, who moves (alongside his split-personality alter-ego, Abbe Dalla Piccola) through the historical events of western Europe at the turn of the last century, bumping elbows with historical figures such as Garibaldi, Dumas, and Freud. Simonini is a forger, an opportunist, and an indiscriminate misanthrope. Loathing is his raison d'etre.
What does the philosopher say? Odi ergo sum. I hate therefore I am.
Born in what is now northern Italy, he debates whether the Italians are more detestable than the neighbouring French. Just over the Alps, of course, are the Germans, for whom he claims a physiologically- and linguistically-based hatred.
I have known Germans, and even worked for them: the lowest conceivable level of humanity. A German produces on average twice the feces of a Frenchman. Hyperactivity of the bowel at the expense of the brain, which demonstrates their physiological inferiority... They think themselves profound because their language is vague —it does not have the clarity of French, and never says exactly what it should, so no German ever knows what he meant to say, and mistakes this uncertainty for depth. With Germans, as with women, you never get to the point.
Oh, yes, and he's also a pathological misogynist, recoiling from any contact with the opposite sex. This does not imply he's homosexual, as he hates gays even more than Germans. The Freemasons are an abomination, but no one is more in need of extermination, in Simonini's opinion, than the Jews. This serves him well, as anti-Semitism is coming into vogue just then. Some Jews are converting to Christianity, but Simonini suspects that there may still be some sinister pool of Jewishness lurking within the convert.
From my grandfather's stories I expected to meet someone with the profile of a vulture, with fleshy lips, the lower lip heavily protruding like a Negro's, deep-set watery eyes, eyelids less open than those of other races, wavy or curly hair, ears sticking out . . . Instead, the man I met had a monkish appearance, a fine gray beard and thick bushy eyebrows with those Mephistophelean tufts at each corner that I had seen among Russians and Poles. Religious conversion evidently transforms not just the soul but also facial appearances.
The French, the Germans, the Russians, the Italians -- with all their agents and double-agents -- have reasons to distrust each other, the Freemasons, and most especially the Jews, who may well have infiltrated the Freemasons and spy organisations. They all want Simonini to forge documents to justify their schemes and paranoias. Wouldn't you know it? Simonini forged the document leading to the arrest of Dreyfus when the French determine that the Jews are infiltrating their military.  

In terms of combating the Masons, the Church decides that the best weapon is a former Mason who returns to the True Faith, repenting of the devil worship he'd engaged in previously. He must repent, of course, by writing lurid stories of Masonic rites, but there will certainly be financial reward for doing so. Simonini asks the Bishop about his budget for such a project.
"How much can we give him for a clear conversion?"
"A sincere conversion ought to be made freely, ad majorem Dei gloriam.Having said that, we shouldn't be too fussy. But don't offer him more than fifty thousand francs. He'll say it's too little, so point out to him that first of all, he's saving his soul, which is priceless, and second, if he writes against the Masons he will enjoy the benefit of our distribution system, which means hundreds of thousands of copies."
It's amazing what one can achieve with statistics.
"All right," said Drumont, "they [Jews] are more resistant than we are to physical illness, but they are more susceptible to mental illness. Constant involvement in commercial dealings, speculation and scheming affects their nervous system. In Italy there is one lunatic for every three hundred and forty-eight Jews, and one for every seven hundred and seventy-eight Catholics.
Eco cleverly captures the mind-set of the early 20th century, when nationalism, chauvinism and pure hatred would bathe the European continent in blood.
National identity is the last bastion of the dispossessed. But the meaning of identity is now based on hatred, on hatred for those who are not the same. Hatred has to be cultivated as a civic passion. The enemy is the friend of the people. You always want someone to hate in order to feel justified in your own misery. Hatred is the true primordial passion. It is love that's abnormal. That is why Christ was killed: he spoke against nature. You don't love someone for your whole life — that impossible hope is the source of adultery, matricide, betrayal of friends . . . But you can hate someone for your whole life, provided he's always there to keep your hatred alive. Hatred warms the heart."
Hatred does indeed warm the heart of the one who hates. While this book exudes erudition and literary cleverness, it does little to affect a reader's heart. I didn't love it or hate it. I did admire it.

1 comment:

  1. Loved name of therose, hated pendulum and must give this one a go!


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