Greater Feast of Umberto Eco, died February 19, 2016 at Milan, Italy
“I challenge anyone to find himself abandoned on a deserted ship, between sea and sky in a vast space, and not be ready to dream that in his great misfortune he at least has had the good fortune to stumble into the heart of time” (273).
The Island of the Day Before is a fantasy about fantasy, with a documentary conceit and no genuinely supernatural elements. Some details of the seventeenth-century science may now seem rather occult, but the essential metaphysics of the entire tale are very much of our world. It is a tale about a quest for the secret of determining longitude, and it seeks to celebrate the mystery of the antipodes in the paradoxes of an international date line.
Although this story was set a century earlier, I found it rather reminiscent of Thomas Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Both are big beefy novels written in the waning of the 20th century, and concerned with the exploratory push of European powers (in early modernity and the Enlightenment, respectively), as well as the relationships between objective and subjective worlds. But their titles show the biggest difference between the books. Mason & Dixon has two protagonists, and the surfeit of plot (to be expected from Pynchon) concerns their relationships to each other and their world. The insular Eco novel is instead nearly solipsistic in the extent to which characters other than the protagonist Roberto are practically reduced to figments of his imagination–the plot, such as it is, is largely in his reminiscences, dreams, and eventually, composed fictions.
The book is a long one, with many short chapters, and the slow pace of the plotting makes it easy to pick up and to put down. It took me more than a month to read it through. My two favorite chapters in the book could each stand on their own, and with particular reference to my occult interests. Chapter 26, “Delights for the Ingenious: A Collection of Emblems” is a long meditation on the symbolism of doves. Chapter 37, “Paradoxical Exercises Regarding the Thinking of Stones,” is a contemplative demonstration of getting stoned in line with the discussion “On the Final Will” in Liber Aleph vel CXI.
The metafictional elements are pronounced in this novel, where the principal character himself ends up writing a “romance,” in which his imagined half-brother and rival becomes his alter-ego. Eco makes both the opening and the closing of the book rather disorienting and unconventional, as part of his reflection on the composition of imaginative literature, and he uses the premise of working from a discovered three-hundred-year-old manuscript both to assert and to undermine the credibility of his story. [via]
The Prague Cemetery is something like a more anti-heroic Fight Club set in late 19th-century Paris, using a diary framework to provide a thorough excavation of the self-dissociated central character. The Piedmontese Simone Simonini is as vile a creature as one can imagine, guilty of venal crimes that he sees through to their murderous conclusions, and of a great misdeed to bear fruit over succeeding generations. He is a double-crossing pseudo-spy, filled with misogyny, antisemitism, paranoia, and avarice. At one point, contemplating an author he has met, Simonini remarks, “I have been told that the great storytellers always portray themselves in their characters” (275). Such an adage invites application to the author of The Prague Cemetery himself, but why or how would Umberto Eco want to be compared to Simonini?
As a career forger who has been enlisted by the intelligence apparatuses of various powers, most often to fabricate “evidence” damning those they’d like to do away with, Simonini plagiarizes novels for his “historical” documents. Eco plagiarizes history for his novel. (He assures us that Simonini is the only fictional character of substance in the whole thing.) Eco’s motives like Simonini’s are didactic and propagandistic. Simonini wants to warn his readers about the Jews and their plots, Eco wants to warn us about antisemitism and its cultural conditions.
The fabrication of political scapegoats to suffer the outrages of authoritarian violence is not limited to the 20th-century antisemitic movements which are shown being incubated in this novel. Russian secret police have a part to play in The Prague Cemetery, and I would encourage those who read this book today to observe the persecution of gays and lesbians in Russia by means of cultural capital produced in America: the “family values” and anti-“homosexualist” rhetoric crafted by right-wing churches and think tanks. (Scott Lively is one of today’s more obvious Simone Simoninis.)
Bereft of any nobler motivation, Simonini takes his chief enjoyment in life from food. The novel has occasional raptures of gastronomical detail, reminiscent of Huysmanns’ diabolical 1890s novel La-Bas (which also includes—a clef—some of Eco’s historical characters). A surprising but effective feature is an assortment of full-page illustrations from period engravings, at the rate of roughly one per chapter.
The Prague Cemetery does resume a number of themes from Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. But in this case, the seemingly more bizarre facts are even more authentic, and the moral upshot is more persuasive and important. Those who enjoy the historical elements of this story and don’t mind adding a bit of whimsy to the incendiary past can continue on without diachronic interruption to Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day. [via]