Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

I was told this would be a catered event.

I have always held the snug and comforting illusion that Eco, being a rotund, avuncular European in my mind (and in reality, once I’d bothered to look him up, judging from a photo grabbed from Wikipedia – Eco is the ever so slightly less hirsute mammal on the right) was a properly cuddly old European Intellectual (capital I no less) who wrote comfortable fables of a suitably magical realism or historical fantasy bent. No doubt, the rather good but clearly inadequate cinematic version of The Name Of The Rose is partially to blame.

A cursory investigation however dredged up a host of worrying and confusing concepts and authors from the swamps of my lost and forgotten academic hinterland – post-modernism, semiotics, intertextuality, honkadori; Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Hélène Cixous, Roland Barthes. When I purchased a signed copy of The Prague Cemetery from the lovely people at Rossiter Books (you can follow them on Twitter so you can) I believed I was in for a challenging but entertaining belt through some of History’s (capital H mind you) most interesting events.

Not so cuddly.
What I got, however, made me anxious. Here I was, thoroughly enjoying the surprise, arising from the forgotten love of word-play, the fact that I didn’t need to care about Foucault or Kristeva to “get it”, the fact that my history lessons hadn’t let me down so much so that I couldn’t put all of the players into proper context, and the fun of the double and sometimes triple narrative (how the author likes to play with the Quixotic ‘found’ manuscript ruse!), and yet I found myself all too often identifying with a protagonist who fears and detests Jews to the point that his “work” eventually ends up on the tables of every anti-Semite in the Western world. Am I therefore an anti-Semite? Is Eco? Am I right to castigate myself?

Of course not - although at times I had to remind myself. My anxieties, as I understand it, are the pragmatic response of the reader to the symbolism and its uses in the novel. My own cosy assumptions were ripped asunder by the power and irresistible force of Eco’s prose. And of course, ‘Captain’ Simone Simonini does not just hate the Jews – he also hates the Jesuits, followers of Garibaldi, women, Palladians, Free Masons, Russians, psychologists and mystics to name but a few. To have all of that hate and bile decanted and distilled into one character, a curious gourmand whose actions might disgust but whose life – and therefore in this context, writings - you can’t help but wish to be prolonged, is quite masterful. I can’t remember a moment when I wished that he would get on with it, or when I found myself skipping a few lines to get back to the action. I loved it, a strong sentiment indeed you might say, coming as it does from a man who vacillates between delight and disgust when there are too many distractions in a novel. Eco is awesome, and I am truly cowed by the complete erudition that must underscore his writing talents – not that I was on his playing field to start with. However, as my boss once said, “aim for the stars, young man, and you will surely hit your ceiling.”

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