How Accurate Is: The Prague Cemetery (Book, Umberto Eco, 2010) Part 1

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco

(Warning: spoilers are present here. They are present everywhere. Also, I get that I am using two referencing systems here; I apologize if this annoys anyone, but hey, that is one of the perks of having your own website: you get to reference things however you want! That said, if anyone finds them truly offensive and/or inaccurate, please let me know.)

Hello everyone! Today’s post is going to be on The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, published in 2010. This is a well-crafted piece of historical fiction, and so I am likely going to spend more time detailing what this book did right than what it did not, not that that is a bad thing.

The Prague Cemetery is set in the period from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth, and partly focuses on conspiracies in European history- from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to anti-Freemason rantings, this book has it all. At the same time, it dips heavily into the actual historical events of the period. The book begins in Italy prior to unification and ends in France in the 1920s. The protagonist is certainly an unusual choice for a main character; a professed Anti-Semite, the opening pages of the novel (which takes the form of a diary) are comprised of a vicious tirade against, in this order, Jewish people, Germans, Italians, Frenchmen (and women), Jesuits, and Masons, with scattered other racial stereotypes (“vain as a Spaniard… unwashed as an Englishman”) thrown in for good measure. In short, the main character is neither likeable nor a particularly accurate narrator. This, however, is the central conceit of the novel; the protagonist is slowly recovering his memory of the events he has had a hand in over the years, which range from the Italian Wars of Unification to the creation of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The sheer range of events present in the book means that I will likely do several posts on it. Therefore, I will begin at the beginning- the treatment of the Italian Wars of Unification in the book. Continue past the link (Next time I promise there will be some actual information before the link) for more.

A cemetery in Prague.
A cemetery in Prague. (Ha. Get it?)

The father of Simonini (the protagonist) died in the short-lived attempt to found the Roman Republic (Eco 2010, 75), and his grandfather was an ardent monarchist- therefore, both sides of this early attempt at Italian revolutions are told in brief in the novel. We hear of “Mazzini’s supporters… running to defend the Roman Republic”, while the grandfather of Simonini says “This is the advent of the Antichrist”. (Eco 2010, 67) This is a reference to the short-lived Roman Republic of 1848, a blaze that was kindled by the fires of revolution spreading across Europe in that year. It survived until 1849, when a French army arrived to restore the power of the Pope; Mazzini and Garibaldi, fled into exile.[1] All of this is represented accurately in the book; there is mention of “General Oudinot… sent by Louis-Napoleon to free the papal throne from Mazzini and Garibaldi’s army.” (Eco 2010, 75)

The second section on the Italian Unification is much longer than the first; it deals with the invasion of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies by Garibaldi’s One Thousand. The protagonist, Simonini, is sent with the One Thousand in order to ensure that Garibaldi does not retain control of Southern Italy after the war, the plan being that Simonini will fabricate evidence of financial irregularities to paint Garibaldi’s government as inept. He is to travel with Alexander Dumas (yes, the novelist), who is on his way to Sicily to aid Garibaldi. This is as it happened historically- in fact, Dumas wrote a novel called On Board the Emma: Adventures with Garibaldi’s ‘Thousand’ on the subject. Once arrived, Simonini seeks out Nievo, the deputy of the quartermaster in Palermo (Eco 2010, 111), who is in charge of the books. Nievo is also a historical personage- Ippolito Nievo was an Italian author who wrote Confessions of an Italian and died (as in the book) in a shipwreck in the Tyrrhenian Sea in 1861.[2]

The book is truly quite impressive in its historical accuracy. The Battle of Calatafimi, for example, described in some detail in the book as “a miraculous victory, a thousand volunteers on one side and twenty-five thousand well-armed Bourbons on the other” (the Bourbon family was the royal family of the Two Sicilies). To be sure, there was only 3000 Bourbon soldiers historically, but this is the brilliance of the book- it later acknowledges that there was likely less but that the number had been exaggerated by Garibaldi’s soldiers.[3] In this way, any minor inaccuracies in the book can be explained away as mistakes made at the time- and indeed, those same mistakes likely were. In any case, there are few such inaccuracies present. The dates are equally correct- Garibaldi is listed as entering Naples yesterday on September 8th, and indeed he entered the city on September 7th historically.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, because Eco is a medieval historian, this is an extremely well researched book. It is a breath of fresh air to work on a post about how accurate something is for once- my next post about this book will be about some of the French portions, so look forward to that. See you next time!

References:

1 Encyclopedia Britannica. “Giuseppe Garibaldi.” Last modified July 2014.

http://www.britannica.com/biography/Giuseppe-Garibaldi

2 Encyclopedia Britannica. “Ippolito Nievo.” n.d.

http://www.britannica.com/biography/Ippolito-Nievo

3 Encyclopedia Britannica. “Expedition of the Thousand.” n.d.

http://www.britannica.com/event/Expedition-of-the-Thousand

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