On a cold January evening just days before merely 300 survivors and a few thousand others gathered at the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps in Poland to commemorate its liberation 70 years ago by Soviet troops in the last months of WWII, the Barga Book Club met to discuss The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco.
The novel’s complex, convoluted, even contrived, historically based plot revolves around a fictitious document forger who seems to be everywhere and a party to or witness of most major events during the late 19th c., and promulgates the idea that the seeds of WWII were sown in a late 19th c. conflict between Catholicism, Judaism, and Free-masonery. It has been compared to a picaresque novel and Dan Brown’s fiction but to a large degree it read more like Woody Allen’s mockumentary: Zelig.
Is it satire, is it postmodern irony? Is it to be taken seriously? The historical elements rejigged to foster conspiracy theories? The trivialization of events bordering on sensationalization? Erudite Eco thumbing his nose at the contrived historical fiction genre, antisemitism, anti-everythingism? The protagonist was presented at very least as unscrupulous, in the extreme, a monstrous creature who abetted atrocities.
Everyone in the book club agreed, it was a difficult read, most didn’t finish it. Liz compared the translation in part to the original and mentioned that the original was beautifully written, and the translation was not good, but it had a great start, but when it seemed to devolve into racism she lost it. Helen felt it was completely incoherent, questioned whether the convoluted plot and contrived main character and its fictionalization, its main theme distressing, no positives, no scruples, no morals, it trivialized the actual events and said that this would put her off any other books by Eco. Margaret, loathed it, although she had enjoyed Il Nome della Rosa, the protagonist, a schizoid double dealing character was cold blooded with nothing to identify with and no redeeming value. Isobel was irked by it and agreed with all of these comments. Salene was bored to tears with this romp through the 19th century. Kerry felt that it wasn’t boredom which drove one to tears and had another perspective to add.
Today, particularly in film, we seem to be glossing over the atrocities of the Holocaust with poignance and quasi sympathetic characters, the uber sexy Ralph Fiennes as an SS officer in Schindler’s list, to name only one. Eco has created an insipid, deceitful, despicable, unredeemable but seemingly feckless monster involved in the bureaucratic and philosophical machinery that resulted in the most horrific man-made event in current history. Were not most guilty of not taking the build up to the Hitler’s final solution seriously enough? Didn’t most believe that these characters, these events were too horrific to be happening at the time. Six million Jews were not the only victims, there were also Romani, homosexuals, communists, and the mentally and physically disabled, who were not only murdered but experimented on first, to total up to 11 million perished, each one cherished by at least one other.
So, should it be taken seriously? Absolutely, lest we ever forget.
Thank you to everyone who contributed and participated.
The next meetings are as follows:
February, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn at Isobel’s.
March, The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng
April, My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
May, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
Article by Kerry Bell