Hi everyone! Today I will be doing another post on Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery. Last time I wrote about the Italian Unification; today, I will be writing about the French sections of Prague Cemetery, specifically the Franco-Prussian War and the Dreyfus Affair. The first, historically, was an 1871 war between France and Prussia. The war resulted in the death of an empire- the French Empire of Napoleon III (Louis-Napoleon, a cousin of the original), which collapsed after the capture of the Emperor at the Battle of Sedan- and in the birth of an empire- the German Empire under Kaiser Wilhelm I, formerly King of Prussia and of the North German Confederation. The second was a major political scandal of the Third French Republic which, in the 1890s, saw a French Lieutenant, Alfred Dreyfus, accused of spying (falsely) and imprisoned; the scandal was notable principally because Dreyfus was Jewish and so the event stirred up Anti-Semitic sentiments across France.
For more, continue past the link.
In the novel, these two events play a fairly large role. The Franco-Prussian War is introduced due to the fact that Simonini is living in Paris at the time; the opening sentence of the section on the war speaks of “the tragedy at Sedan.” (Eco 2010, 242) Simonini spends his time during the war pretending to spy for the Prussians (whom he is in fact spying on at the behest of the French), at least until the beginning of the Siege of Paris. Due to Simonini’s preoccupation with good food, much of the section of the book focusing on the siege deals with the economic hardship imposed on the people of Paris; Simonini speaks of Parisians eating rats, the zoo animals, and household pets. All of this appears to be accurate; apparently the only zoo animals spared the hunger of the people of Paris were the lions, the tigers, and the monkeys.The Second Siege, this time conducted by the French Republic against the Paris Commune, is also depicted fairly accurately; for example, the text describes the execution of the Archbishop of Paris, which is a historical event, and inflamed passions against the commune. All in all, the Franco-Prussian War and the Sieges of Paris are described accurately; once again, Eco has shown himself to be in complete command of his subject.
The Dreyfus Affair is, naturally, also depicted accurately by Eco; even the description of the degradation, where “a gendarme officer… removed his saber and broke it over his knee” is completely accurate.(Eco 2010, 370) The only part of this section that isn’t completely accurate is the role of Simonini, who forges a letter signed by Dreyfus to implicate him; however, this is simply a plot decision, and Eco acknowledges at the end of the book that Simonini is one of only a few characters in the novel who are not historical. Furthermore, some of the documents were found to be false historically, and so there is no way to decisively disprove this section.
Eco has shown with this book that he is a master of history; if you are looking for a historical fiction book to read that is totally accurate, look no further than this one. Eco’s writing proves that it is not necessary to abandon historical accuracy in order to have a compelling plot; other writers would do well to pay attention. I hope you all enjoyed this post!
1 Ohio State University. “The Siege of Paris During the Franco-Prussian War.” n.d.
2 Brown University. “Paris: Capital of the Nineteenth Century; War, Siege, the Commune (1870-1871).” n.d.
3 Georgetown University. “Chronology of the Dreyfus Affair.” Last modified May 2000.