About halfway through Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery I have not stumbled, so far, upon the travelogue sequences I promised to record for readers. But the book has brought us down into the darkest caverns of history, spiced further by fiction. The New York Times marveled at the extent to which the conspiracies described by Eco were real – taken from history, that is, not necessarily real in themselves; the Times reviewer even chided Eco for the lack of imagination required to sustain his plot.
Here is a passage with a flavor of the whole. The protagonist Simonini, a confirmed forger, is compiling a fake document for his spymaster composed largely of other fake documents, including a novel. A source whom he meets at a beer hall in Munich asks questions about his own sources:
I evaded them, talking about other matters and mentioning my exploits with Garibaldi’s men. He was pleasantly surprised, he said, as he was writing a novel about events in Italy in 1860. It was almost finished, its title would be Biarritz, and it would comprise several volumes. Not all the events were set in Italy – it moved about from Siberia to Warsaw to Biarritz (of course) and so on. He spoke of it with enthusiasm and a certain smugness, claiming that he was about to complete the Sistine Chapel of historical fiction. I didn’t understand the link between the various events he was describing, but the story seemed to revolve around the continual threat from three evil powers that were surreptitiously taking over the world – the Freemasons, the Catholics (in particular the Jesuits) and the Jews, who were also infiltrating the first two in order to undermine the purity of the Protestant Teutonic race.
The novel began with the Italian conspiracies of Mazzini’s Freemasons, then moved to Warsaw, where the Freemasons were conspiring against Russia, along with the nihilists – a breed as damned as the Slavs had ever managed to produce, although both (nihilists and Slavs) were mostly Jewish – and it is important to note that their system of recruitment resembled that of the Bavarian Illuminati and the Alta Vendita of the Carbonari, where every member recruited another nine, none of whom must know each other.
Then the story returned to Italy, following the advance from Piedmont southward to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, in a mayhem of violence, treachery, rape of noblewomen, dramatic exploits, gallant swashbuckling Irish monarchists, secret messages hidden under the tails of horses, a vile Carbonaro prince, Caracciolo, who molests a young (Irish monarchist) girl, the discovery of magic rings in green oxidized gold with intertwined snakes and red coral at the center, a kidnap attempt on the son of Napoleon III, the drama of Castelfidardo where the battlefield is strewn with the blood of German troops loyal to the pope, and condemnation of the welsche Feigheit – Goedsche [who is describing the novel to Simonini] said it in German, perhaps so as not to offend me, but I had studied a little German and understood he was referring to that cowardly behavior typical of the Latin races. At that point events became more and more confused, and we still hadn’t reached the end of the first volume.
There is a sort of architecture in all this that is, I admit, more literary, a matter of deeply winding tunnels of expanding darkness, than of the structure of a building or a city. I trust readers will be intrigued rather than put off by this descent so far off my beaten track!