By Umberto Eco. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Trade, 2011. 464 pp. $27. ISBN: 978-0-547-57753-1.
“My novels contain a typically postmodern feature—namely, double coding,” said medieval scholar and semiotician Umberto Eco in “Confessions of a Young Novelist,” his 2008 Richard Ellmann Lecture Series in Modern Literature at Emory University. By double coding, he meant the pairing of “intertextual irony: direct quotations from other famous texts, or more or less transparent references to them,” and “implicit metanarrative appeal,” or “reflections that the text makes on its own nature, when the author speaks directly to the reader.” This enables Eco to separate gold from dross, establishing “a sort of silent complicity with the sophisticated reader” at the expense of those who “los[e] an additional wink.”
Eco’s sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, is just such a duplicitous act. Its main character, Simone Simonini, is a professional counterfeiter and spy whose humble beginnings as a forger in a Piedmont notary’s office pave the way for his recidivist tendencies. A wily parvenu, Simonini infiltrates the Paris Commune, colludes with, incarcerates and murders his collaborators, masterminds the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a false account of rabbinical speeches proposing Jewish world domination, apparently given at a gathering in the Prague Cemetery of Eco’s title, and pens the memo that inspired the Dreyfus Affair. He masquerades as Abbé Dalla Piccola, a priest, on occasion, to gather information on religious orders or practices and facilitate these heists. Formally, the narrative is an epistolary dialogue between Simonini and Dalla Piccola in their shared diary, which, like Nikolai Gogol’s “Diary of a Madman,” chronicles Simonini’s descent into madness. The hope is that through telling the tale, “the traumatizing element reemerges,” Simonini says.
To many readers, The Prague Cemetery is an antic tour through the byzantine depths of nineteenth-century Europe, frustrated by Simonini’s dual personalities, vitriolic anti-Semitism, and mordant misanthropy (Masons and Jesuits are equally subject to his ire, as “people are never so enthusiastically evil as when they act out of religious conviction”; women are “just a substitute for the solitary vice, except that you need more imagination”). But what is Eco’s “intertextual irony”? What is being encoded, and what kind of reader perceives it?
A tertiary presence, the gendered but unnamed Narrator, holds the key to Eco’s artful hoodwinking of his readers. To understand his function, his mastery over this labyrinthine narrative, and his appeal to the “sophisticated” reader, it’s worth looking back at Eco’s commentary on two of his previous novels, which carefully match prose with period:
Once an author has designed a specific narrative world, the words will follow, and they will be those that the particular world requires. For this reason, the style I used in The Name of the Rose was that of a medieval chronicler: precise, naïve, flat when necessary (a humble fourteenth-century monk does not write like Joyce, or remember things like Proust)…In The Island of the Day Before, the cultural period was the determining factor. It influenced not just the style but the very structure of the ongoing dialogue between narrator and character, while the reader is continually appealed to as a witness and accomplice.
Following this logic, the Prague Cemetery Narrator wears the mantle of Victorian tradition: he’s a percipient if retiring observer, peering over Simonini’s shoulder to read his diary. His role, and what it says about the novel itself, is most palpable to readers intimately versed in nineteenth-century narrative voice and, on a broader, more transhistorical scale, the history of the novel. A mere shortlist of texts Eco consciously parodies in constructing the narrative voice and style would include Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel (for its lengthy, hyperbolic enumerations spanning several pages), Stendhal’s The Red and the Black (whose narration is so carefully wrought as to leave the reader more or less in the dark about whose opinions are presented, and whose mocked), Balzac’s Père Goriot (in its magisterial descriptions of the city of Paris, especially the Place Maubert), and Dumas’ Joseph Balsamo (which gives Simonini the idea that “if [he] wanted to sell the story of a conspiracy, [he] didn’t have to offer the buyer anything original, but simply something he already knew or could have found out more easily in other ways. People believe only what they already know, and this is the beauty of the Universal Form of Conspiracy”). The historical setting and actions of The Prague Cemetery cleverly anticipate Céline’s Trifles for a Massacre, a lavishly illustrated, viciously anti-Semitic text, rife with malicious comparisons between Jewish and animal physiognomy and unattributed ravings, and plagiarized, like Simonini’s Protocols, from existing anti-Semitic leaflets. Céline, like Simonini, was exiled for his writings; his widow, Lucette Destouches, sagely banned reprints of Trifles until the international copyright on his work expires in 2031.
How does the Narrator pair these intertextual nods with a more self-reflexive style of narration? In part, his comments are typographically distinct, appearing in old-fashioned font, which, together with the rococo engravings, give the impression that he’s parodying Simonini, stitching his tale from multiple undocumented sources and traditions that are recognizable only to a highly literate few, just as Simonini does with the Protocols.
On the level of knowledge, too, he’s complicit with the author, referring to himself in the third person, and withholding what he knows from the reader: “the Narrator himself does not yet know who the mysterious writer [of the diary] is, proposing to find this out (together with the Reader) while both of us look on inquisitively and follow what he is noting down.” But one often questions where he is and what his vantage point is when he reads of Simonini’s grappling with his double-identity and writes of “something sinister happening around me which I couldn’t quite identify…This is me. But who am I?…Reread the above notes. If what is written is written, then it has actually happened. Believe in what is written.”
Eco spoke of The Island of the Day Before as an attempt to “bamboozle” the reader, to create an “imprecise” literary world in which the reader was immersed enough to know every topographical detail, yet deliberately bemused about the events and characters. Something quite similar is at work here, too, though the Narrator lets Simonini voice it: “what matters,” he muses, “is to know something that others don’t know you know.” Which is precisely what the Narrator achieves, to brilliant effect. He offers “to summarize” or “to carry out the proper amplification, so this game of cues and responses becomes more coherent,” but his meaning pivots on the word “game.”
The Narrator finally reveals his sleight of hand by the end of the novel, asserting that all characters with the exception of Simonini were real historical figures, and annexing a table comparing narrative and historical time so that the reader can measure Simonini and Dalla Piccola’s diary entries against what actually happened. This, inevitably, would require re-reading, and reveals a deft mastery of plot that recalls George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, the canonical nineteenth-century multi-plot novel, whose dovetailing narratives, stemming from the same scene, carefully coexist and then converge. Even if only the most perceptive readers may follow such a sinuous tale, it’s adventurous enough for all.
This piece was published in the Los Angeles Review of Books here.