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Umberto Eco. Il cimitere di Praga.

Umberto Eco. Il cimitere di Praga. Milano: Bompiani, 2010.

Il cimitero di Praga, Umberto Eco's latest novel, deals with the historical vicissitudes of a troubled 19th century characterized by political, religious and masonic conspiracies. It is written in the torm of an epistolary novel and includes pieces of Simonini's diary and exchange of letters between Simonini and Abbot Dalla Piccola. The narrator, who is the omniscient voice, occasionally shows limitations and the voice of a second narrator steps in to clarify some obscure points: "Concederete che anche il Narratore sia perplesso" ("You will allow that even the narrator be perplexed") (201). Also, the novel includes 57 illustrations with captions at the bottom of each illustration giving a true sense of a 19th century feuilleton novel. The plot is a rather complex one mapping out the unfolding of events in places such as Italy, France, and Germany. It begins in Turin, Italy, the birthplace of the main protagonist, Captain Simone Simonini.

In Turin, Simonini's childhood is influenced by his grandfather's indoctrination and bate for the Jews, which later he clearly makes them flow into his misdeeds as he becomes a refined conspirator and professional forger of documents. His initial conspiracies are against some young "carbonari" or republican insurrectionists and against notary Rebaudengo (for whom he works in Turin and from whom he learned the art of forgery) on the request of cavalier Bianco, a man of the Sabaudian secret services. His first, major conspiracy takes place during the process of unification of Italy and specifically with the "Expedition of the Thousand" to Sicily under the command of Giuseppe Garibaldi. In Sicily, Simonini plots against Ippolito Nievo, the treasurer of the expedition, once more on the request of Bianco, since Nievo is in charge of secret accounting books concerning the expedition. Although Simonini is ordered to make such books disappear in a legal way, he takes the initiative, with the help of some accomplices of his, to blow up the ship (l'Ercole) on which Nievo was traveling on his trip back to Turin.

As a result of the temerarious initiative of blowing up the ship in order to destroy the books, Simonini also kills Nievo and all the people onboard. For this misdeed and due to the fact that key-individuals knew Simonini's close ties with Nievo, to avert suspicion, Bianco ordered him to leave Turin for good as a precautionary measure. Simonini closes the notary office in Turin, which he had skillfully managed to take away from Rebaudengo (by means of a witty, vengeful trick), receives money from Bianco, and settles in Paris. There he continues his incessant profession of conspirator and forger for Bianco and, later on, for others as well. The very first, true, political forgery Simonini produces for Bianco is the one against the Jesuits and Napoleon III. In the forged document, he mentions a Jesuit meeting that allegedly took place in the ancient Jewish Cemetery of Prague: "Quel rapporto era stato il mio primo lavoro veramente serio dove non mi limitavo a scarabocchiare un testamento a uso di un privato qualsiasi, ma costruivo un testo politicamente complesso con cui forse contribuivo alla politica del Regno di Sardegna. Mi rammentavo che ne ero proprio orgoglioso" (Such a report had been my first, reputable work in which l did not limit myself in scribbling an ordinary private will, bur I crafted a politically complex text by which I contributed, perhaps, to the politics of the Sardinian Kingdom. I remember I was very proud of it) (126). Moreover, Simonini affirms that he chose the Cemetery of Prague for such a meeting because "... agli ebrei non avevo voluto rinunciare, e li avevo usati per l'ambientazione. Era pur sempre un modo per suggerire a Bianco qualche sospetto nei confronti dei giudei" (... I did not want to give up the idea of the Jews and I used them for the setting. It was nonetheless a way of suggesting to Bianco some suspect against the Jews) (120). For said forgery, he finds inspiration in Eugene Sue's The Wandering Jew, The Mysteries of the People, and in Alexandre Dumas' Joseph Balsamo. The content of the forgery is a ploy of the Church and Napoleon III, disclosing their true political aim over Italy, which would prevent Italy's unification and hamper the role of the Sardinian Kingdom concerning the unification campaign.

The initial forgery Simonini produces for Bianco, the one against the Jesuits and Napoleon III, undergoes several revisions, which be dexterously modifies and makes suitable for various clients in exchange for significant sums of money. Upon his arrival in France, Simonini begins to work also for the French secret services with an agent called Lagrange.

The first modification of the document he originally produced for Bianco, and appearing clearly as a Jewish conspiracy, is the one he prepares for Jakob Brafmann, a converted Jew who works for the Czarist secret police under Colonel Dimitri. From this forgery Simonini receives 25,000.00 francs. Dimitri also tells Simonini that for the remaining half he agreed to pay him, he had to go to Germany and give a second authentic fake of the same document to Hermann Goedsche who, at the time, was working for the Prussian secret services under a certain Stieber. Prussia too, like Czarist Russia, was facing some problems with the Jews (imaginary problems rather than real). He goes to Germany, meets Goedsche in a restaurant to close the deal, but the German agent does not give him the money as Dimitri promised him, because the document had to be first examined by Stieber. Simonini is skeptical and does not want to leave the document in Goedsche's hands. However, in order to allow Stieber to evaluate its content, he grants Goedsche permission to copy it. Shortly after, Goedsche publishes his Biarritz in which he transcribes integrally Simonini's forgery. Goedsche fools Simonini: "Lagrange mi aveva pur prevenuto che il furfante si era gia distinto nella falsificazione di documenti ed essere caduto cosi ingenuamente nella trappola di un falsario mi rendeva folle di rabbia" (Lagrange had even warned me about the rascal that he was known for falsifying documents and knowing that I had naively fallen into his trap made me very angry) (265-66).

Upon his return to France, Simonini, through Abbot Dalla Piccola, tries to sell the same document to the Jesuits. So far, the scenario on plagiarism is as follows: Maurice Joly copies from Eugene Sue, Simonini copies from Sue, Joly, and Dumas, and Goedsche copies from Simonini. The Jesuits are not convinced about the document's content. Through Father Bergamaschi, they ask Simonini to revise the same document and possibly make the Jewish Machiavellianism stand out. Also, they want him to include his grandfather's letter which he sent to the Jesuit abbot, Augustin Barruel, who is the first author to write about conspiracy theories.

Later on, Simonini develops the idea that in the Cemetery of Prague be has to make believe there is more than one speech delivered by different rabbis. From this idea he develops the format for The Protocols of the Elders of Zion (fictitiously, of course, since be is the only fictitious character in the novel). In Eco's novel surfaces also the idea that the more authentic fakes were circulating and pointing in the same direction, the more credible a conspiracy theory would be: "I servizi segreti di ciascun paese credono solo a cio che hanno sentito dite altrove e respingerebbero come inattendibile ogni notizia del tutto inedita" (The secret services of any country believe only that which they have heard elsewhere, and reject original news as untrustworthy) (211). Simonini produces another forgery for Juliana Glinka, granddaughter of General Orzheyevskij; both Glinka and Orzheyevskij were at the service of the Russian secret police. He eliminates some long parts from the document, adds two more pages about the messianic role of the Jews interwoven with republican ideals (a frightening ingredient for the Czar) and describes how the occult power of the world worked. Simonini's first version of the document does not convince Orzheyevskij and, thus, the latter asks Simonini to include also information related to his grandfather's letter to Barruel. A new forgery is ready to circulate in Russia into two distinct exemplars after being translated: a short one published in journals and the other as a pamphlet called Tajna Evrejstva (The Secret of the Jews) (396).

Upon the request of commander Esterhazy from the French military counterespionage, Simonini forges another document revealing information about the French armament which leads to the Dreyfus Affair and to the wrongful conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894.

One last important forgery Simonini writes is yet again for the Russian secret police on the request of Rachkovskij (Rachkovskij uses Golovinskij as the interlocutor with Simonini) in which he manipulates the information contained in the document he previously prepared for Glinka and Orzheyevskij. He is asked to eliminate information on the Middle Ages, to purposely make unclear the date in which the meeting took place in the Cemetery of Prague, and to include other forgeries (of course Simonini's forgeries) that would appear as the original documents written hall a century earlier by his grandfather; documents these latter ones which senior Simonini had allegedly translated from the protocols of the rabbis' meeting in the Cemetery of Prague (490).

Il cimitero di Praga has all the characteristics and significance of a historical novel in which the reader finds clearly delineated a historical consciousness, as Eco uses true historical figures to stage socio-political conflicts and historical transformations (specific historical aspects about the unification of Italy, just to mention one example), as well as other major events which brought about said conflicts and transformations. Moreover, if is a useful tool which makes the reader aware of an epistemic problem flowing between fiction and reality and how such a problem incapacitates human ability to distinguish the one from the other. It is certainly not the remedy for such a problem and the tragic events which can be directly linked to it. Nonetheless, it enables the reader to comprehend, in an amusing way, "the mechanisms by which fiction can shape life. At rimes the results can be innocent and pleasant, as when one goes to Baker Street; but at other times life can be transformed into a nightmare instead of a dream. Reflecting on these complex relationships between reader and story, fiction and life, can constitute a form of therapy against the sleep of reason, which generates monsters" (Umberto Eco. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1994. 139).


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Author:De Benedictis, Raffaele
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2011
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