Book Review: The Prague Cemetery

I decide to take up the TSBC Challenge out of curiosity. What book would I get? Could it be completely out of my loop? As a student of literature, haven’t I already abandoned the idea of a ‘comfort zone’? And anyway could TSBC gauge my loop?  And, I’m in for a surprise!

The-Prague-CemeteryMy first impressions of The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco are restricted to two words on the smoky, greyish-brown book cover: ‘Cemetery’ and ‘bestselling’. And I see a man with a hat who apparently conceals an event of some consequence as he stands with his back to the audience. It is perhaps, only through him that we might see light. Horror? Mystery?

The first chapter continues the eerie feel of the book cover by taking the reader through the “tangle of malodorous alleys” in a crime-infested neighborhood of the late nineteenth century Paris, only to land him/her at the doorstep of an old, faded antique shop. Inside, the reader almost bumps into history, as it is jammed together in terms of articles perhaps from different times and contexts — “a pendulum clock in faking blue enamel”, “vase stands with chipped ceramic putti”, “a rusty iron visiting card holder”, “hideous mother-of-pearl fans decorated with Chinese designs”, “two white felt slippers with buckles encrusted with Irish diamante”, “a chipped bust of Napoleon”… Interesting.

What instantly catches my attention is the introduction of my narrators, a shifting threesome — Captain Simonini; his alter ego, Abbe Dalla Picolla; and the almost omniscient Narrator. The lack of reliability on a single perspective and the amnesiac persona of Simonini beautifully complicate the fictional rendition of real historical events— the Italian Risorgimento, the Paris Commune, the Dreyfus Affair, etc.

The reader is an active participant, piecing together the gaps in the received versions of history that the book cleverly plays with. One is invited to re-read crucial events in the history of Europe in the nineteenth century, in the light of Simonini’s account. The fictional character Simonini is our sole reference point in unraveling the workings of secret societies of different countries and an entire web of espionage, plots, conspiracies, and counter conspiracies behind real historical events. His account that outlines his involvement in making history, as it were, attempts to provide a design, a form to the otherwise dispersed moments of political, historical importance. Interestingly, however, even within the story, Simonini does something similar— fabrication of official documents that seem to create an illusion of a design, an order during moments of unrest so as to direct/create public opinion in favour of the power holders. And for this, he candidly gives credit to the works of writers like Dumas and Sue.

A young Simonini claims,

From the picture created by Dumas (in reverence to that great writer) I wondered whether the Bard had not discovered the Universal Form of every possible conspiracy… Who knows how many people in the world still think they are being threatened by some conspiracy. Here’s the form to be filled out at will, by each person with their own conspiracy.

Simonini skillfully gauges a universal pattern in the way in which people prefer to perceive an unruly reality, danger, and political unrest, which he continues to use in his favour (and therefore in the favour of power holders). “You can never create danger which has a thousand different faces — danger has to have one face alone, otherwise people become distracted.” And herein too lies the self-reflexivity of the novel; a comment on its own technique, for the novel also appears to promise an order, a design to an entire age of forgeries, plots and conspiracies. The blurb claims, “Nineteenth-century Europe abounds with the ghastly and the mysterious… But what if, behind all of these conspiracies, both real and imagined, lay one lone man?”

Another interesting aspect of the book is its analysis of the way power operates. It focuses on the theatrical, the performative aspect of power that requires ‘staged’ riots from time to time, and a creatively fabricated ‘other’, an enemy, in order to hold public opinion in its favour. Furthermore, the detailed descriptions of food and the ritual of eating in the book also deserve mention. The sensuous imagery recreating every dish that Simonini eats, emphasises the voracious appetite of the protagonist and his ability to assimilate a large quantity of food. This can be extended to his large appetite for intrigue and conspiracy too, for he digests gory and ghastly reality and his actions just as well only to sometimes even reproduce them in a meaningful manner.

One small downslide of the book could be the repetitive nature of the constantly fabricated conspiracies and the direction of all hatred against one common enemy/culprit through the production of documents inspired from a few common sources. Towards the second half, the successful implementation of these repetitive plans and plots does not impress the reader much, for he/she too now perceives a pattern to the plot. The open ending seems apt, however.

On the whole, the book does make me conscious of the fact that I do in fact have a comfort zone, much to my displeasure, but I thank TSBC for helping me come out of it with the help of this historical fiction – The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco.

Kudos, #TSBCChallenge !!

Anamika Purohit

——————

This is what  Anamika has to say about herself:

After completing my Masters in English Literature, I’ve enjoyed a brief period of teaching. I love to wallow in the process of engagement when it comes to books, literature, cinema and conversations; my creative and academic pursuits are always high on my priority-list.

Thank you, Anamika for taking up the #TSBC Challenge. This badge is for you 🙂

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