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Literature / The Prague Cemetery

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I believe that you can reach the point where there is no longer any difference between developing the habit of pretending to believe and developing the habit of believing.
— Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum.

A postmodernist Conspiracy Thriller by Umberto Eco, retelling the stories of many historical hoaxes, humbugs and forgeries - where the most important one is that of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was one of the indirect causes of Jews being a scapegoat for the Nazis during the World War II. Considered to be one of the most controversial literary works published in the recent time because of its faithful rendition of many anti-Semitic statements, the novel is nonetheless highly popular. Its style and plot resembles those of the other novels by Eco, especially Foucault's Pendulum, where Protocols also play an important role.

The main character, Simone Simonini, is an amnesiac lawyer working theoretically as an antiquary and practically as an informant for the intelligence service and a forger of documents. His mind is full of partial memories, racial and religious prejudices and conspiracy theories based on them - and though he is not always sure of the difference between them, he manages to make a decent amount of money by using them creatively. Besides obvious problems connected with his profession he must deal with a nosy priest who has a habit of breaking into his house and leave notes in Simone's own diary, implying that he knows more about Simone's life than Simone himself. Oh, and there is also a cellar full of corpses, a hysteric woman with two personalities, and bunch of cultists worshipping Satan - all that on the background of Franco-Prussian War, the movement of Garibaldi, and The Gay '90s.

The tropes, as regards the novel:

  • Artistic License – History: While the "Taxil hoax" is historically true, Diana Vaughan was probably an ordinary secretary with Protestant beliefs, and not a mentally disturbed young woman. Ironically, Taxil's real-world claims are still taken seriously by some people these days.
  • Because I'm Good At It: It is true that Simonini's job implies many unethical activities, but he didn't really have a choice after he was practically forced to become an apprentice for a forger lawyer who disinherited him.
  • Becoming the Mask: Simonini impersonates the priest Dalla Piccola for a number of years and then suffers a split personality where one of his personalities is himself and the other Piccola.
  • Been There, Shaped History: Simone Simonini crosses paths and influences many historical characters, culminating in his creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
  • Big Bad: The protagonist Simone Simonini's ambitions and never-ending hatred for everyone, especially Jews, are the source of almost all the crimes described in his diary.
  • "Blackmail" Is Such an Ugly Word: In the conversations between Simonini and many of his employers.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Simonini is prejudiced against pretty much every nationality there is, including the French and the Italians, even though he's half French and half Italian. He also encounters several anti-Semitic propagandists who are Jewish, or resemble common caricatures of what a Jew is supposed to look like.
  • Food Porn: The book is full of loving descriptions of gourmet food and recipes. This is because we see the world through Simonini's eyes, and food takes the place of sex for him.
  • Freudian Excuse: The leitmotiv of Simonini's childhood are his father musings on evil Jesuits and, on the other hand, those of his grandfather, which concern Jews. Being turned down by a young Jewish girl on his only attempt at a pick-up line couldn't have helped, either.
  • From a Certain Point of View: The notary who first teaches Simonini how to forge documents. He's not creating forgeries, just recreating documents that exist but haven't been found yet.
  • Ignorant of Their Own Ignorance: Simonini (and several other anti-Semitics he encounters) don't know any Jews at all, yet claim to be experts on their culture and Evil Plans.
  • The Infiltration: Simonini performs it many times, most notably pretending to be a follower of Garibaldi to discredit him.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Simonini and, well, almost every other character.
  • Mockspiracy: The book is about the creation of a hoax document outlining an alleged "Judeo-Masonic conspiracy".
  • Note to Self: Strongly subverted, as Simonini suspects that he and Dalla Piccola are the same person - and shares with him this suspicion - but cannot be sure for a long time.
  • Number of the Beast - Repeatedly told by the children present at the black mass.
  • Ominous Opera Cape: The cover of most editions features a model case.
  • Pay Evil unto Evil: Subverted. Although Simonini states early on that it seems that he has only practiced his villainy on people who were villains themselves, this turns out to be not so accurate.
  • Pedophile Priest: Simonini's tutor, a Jesuit priest, makes a sexual advance to him during one of their lessons. This probably accounts for his contempt of all priests later on.
  • Shout-Out: Most notably to Italo Calvino and to Dumas's Joseph Balsamo - not only does Eco make Simonini explicitly refer to this book (and meet its author) but also places in the novel many plot references to Dumas's book.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • Actually, Eco's scholarly essays in which he mentions Protocols can be very useful in grasping the meaning of the events in the novel.
    • An early scene calls for Simonini to converse with a Jewish psychiatrist during his time in Paris. Upon realizing that Simonini's time in Paris coincided with a period of Sigmund Freud's life spent in Paris, Eco researched the restaurants and cafés Freud frequented at this time to provide his characters with a plausible meeting place.
  • Smug Snake: Simonini isn't nearly as smooth or clever as he thinks he is. He is a master forger, but when it comes to espionage and murders, he usually finds himself at the mercy of the secret police to keep himself alive and out of prison.
  • Take That!: Simonini enjoys delivering them to anyone and everyone he dislikes, such as the Germans. On a meta-level, the entire book is a Take That! to those who spread lies and half-truths in the guise of conspiracy theories, and those who fall for them - and a warning that it is happening again, and can happen in future, unless we are prudent.
  • This Loser Is You: See Take That!, above; a large part of Eco's Aesop is that while Simonini is an obvious villain, many of us - when we choose to believe in conspiracies and demonize others on this basis - aren't that different.
  • Through the Eyes of Madness: To some extent, Simonini's point of view.
  • Unreliable Narrator: An elaborated case. The Narrator, who admits that he is trying to put together the relations of Simonini and Dalla Piccola (thus resembling a historian, but also a reader), is nonetheless conscious that the solution must involve arbitrariness.
  • Unwitting Pawn: Almost everyone who meets Simonini, and quite often Simonini himself.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Characteristic for Eco's novels.
  • Villain Protagonist: Simonini is filled with ethnic and religious prejudices, is a virulent misogynist, makes his living by forging legal documents and fabricating incendiary propaganda against whatever group his current employer sees fit to demonize, and loves no one but himself. He's also completely ruthless and willing to kill anyone who stands in his way,
  • Villainous BSoD: Simonini, in his Dalla Piccola avatar, has one when he attends a Black Mass, has sex with Diana, and finds out to his horror that she is Jewish. He then murders her and the "priest", disposes of their bodies, and develops a split personality.
  • Villainous Glutton: Simonini. If there is anything he loves, it is food.
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: The main reason of murders committed by Simonini.

Tropes in conspiracy theories believed in or launched by the characters:

  • The Illuminati: The Bavarian Illuminati is included in the conspiracy theories from time to time.
  • Jewish Complaining: Simonini's impression after some conversations.
  • Supernatural Phone: The novel mentions the Arcula Mystica, which is a diabolical telephone of which there are seven in existence. It operates wirelessly and is even able to communicate directly with its owner if he's away from it. This is one of the many creative fabrications of Real Life hoaxter Léo Taxil, who features in this historical novel.