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Posts Tagged ‘historical fiction’

The Prague CemeteryI’ve read a few books by Eco, now – The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and now this. While I didn’t think The Prague Cemetery was as good as the first two novels in that list, it was much, much better than the third.

The premise of this book is quite daring – on several levels. Using a wide array of historically accurate sources, Eco creates a fictional character who almost single-handedly, it seems, creates the vitriolic anti-Semitism of fin de siècle Europe, which culminates in the Russian creation of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which then, of course, leads to the terrible events of the 1930s and 40s.

Daring, because the subject matter is so sensitive; and because Eco’s narrative pretty attributes it all to one man; and because, except for the main character, it’s all – apparently – historically accurate: all the other characters (with a couple of minor exceptions and conflations) are real historical personages, all the events really happened. Daring also, because the main character develops two personalities, whose diaries and notes form letters to each other.

(Fictional) Simone Simonini, inspired by his (real) grandfather’s anti-Semitism as expressed in a (real) letter to (the real) Abbé Barruel, embarks on a career as a dishonest notary; he becomes a cunning forger first in his native Italy (Piedmont, actually, as there was no Italy as we know it in the mid-nineteenth century) and later in his adoptive France. He gets caught up in various historical events – Garibaldi’s battles in Sicily, the Fourth French Revolution, sensational exposés of Masonic rituals – and all the while develops his plans to discredit the Jewish people by concocting a fanciful story of a group of rabbis meeting in the Prague cemetery to discuss their plans to take over the world by such dastardly means as infiltrating governments and banks, introducing freedom of speech and social reforms and promoting republicanism.

Many long stretches of the book are fascinating reconstructions of historical intrigues. The sub-plot regarding a false persona that was created through psychological trauma is very promising at the beginning, but quickly becomes little more than a foil for Simonini’s amnesiac search for his own history. The depth of his hatred for Judaism – and for Jesuits, women, Germans, the French, Italians – in fact everyone except himself – is also quite entertaining. The various guises and ploys, plots and actions that Simonini is involved with make him a very appealing anti-hero. The milieu of late nineteenth century history-making and hysteria is expertly recreated.

And when I was old enough to understand, [my grandfather] reminded me that the Jew, as well as being as vain as a Spaniard, ignorant as a Croat, greedy as a Levantine, ungrateful as a Maltese, insolent as a gypsy, dirty as an Englishman, unctuous as a Kalmuck, imperious as a Prussian and as slanderous as anyone from Asti, is adulterous through uncontrollable lust – the result of circumcision, which makes them more erectile, with a monstrous disproportion between their dwarfish build and the thickness of their semi-mutilated protuberance.

I dreamt about Jews every night for years and years.

A few facts make the narrative drag. The join-the-dots approach to constructing a plot means that the whole thing is rather meandering and it ends very suddenly. The double-narrative (actually, it’s a triple-narrative, as there is a Narrator-with-a-capital-N, too) doesn’t quite work; the mystery as to whether the secondary personality is a figment or a real person isn’t that mysterious. And lists – throughout his work, Eco cannot resist a good list, and they do start to seem like he’s showing off his impressive erudition.

We decided that the Grand Master of the Supreme Council of Charleston bore the titles of Brother General, Sovereign Commander, Master Adept of the Grand Symbolic Lodge, Secret Master, Perfect Master, Intimate Secretary, Provost and Judge, Master Elect of the Nine, Illustrious Elect of the Fifteen, Sublime Knight Elect, Chief of the Twelve Tribes, Grand Master Architect, Scottish Grand Elect of the Sacred Visage, Perfect and Sublime Mason, Knight of the East or of the Sword, Prince of Jerusalem, Knight of the East and West, Sovereign Prince of the Rose Croix, Grand Pontiff, Venerable Master ad vitam of all Symbolic Lodges, Noachite of Prussian Knight, Grand Master of the Key, Prince of Libanus and of the Tabernacle, Knight of the Brazen Serpent, Knight Commander of the Temple, Knight of the Sun, Prince Adept, Scottish Knight of Saint Andrew, Grand Elect Knight Kadosh, Perfect Initiate, Grand Inspector Inquisitor, Clear and Sublime Prince of the Royal Secret, Thirty-Three, Most Powerful Sovereign Commander General Grand Master Conservator of the Sacred Palladium, Sovereign Pontiff of Universal Freemasonry.

Umberto Eco

This was an entertaining and fascinating read, but it felt a little hampered by being tied to a range of historical events – albeit important and interesting historical events. So while this wasn’t my favourite Eco novel, it has restored my faith in him after the navel-gazing-fest of Queen Loana. I’m ready to read one of his other books, now – maybe Baudolino.

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Prince of AyodhyaPrince of Ayodhya is the first volume of a modern retelling of the Ramayana, the ancient Sanskrit epic about the ideal hero, Rama. I was quite looking forwards to reading it (even though I’ve owned this book for a good few years) – Indian or Hindu mythology seems to be very colourful and obviously part of a tradition just as august as the Graeco-Roman and Germanic mythoi (which is the plural of mythos) that inform our European outlook. In practice, though, reading it was a big disappointment.

The novel is set mostly during a single day in which Rama is declared the crown prince of Ayodhya by his father Maharaja Dasaratha and is taken on a journey by a millennia-old seer, Guru Vishwamitra, to kill a demon (or Asura) and protect a ritual the seer wants to conduct. This latter double task actually takes a week or more, but is squeezed into the last hundred or so pages of the 500-odd page novel. Much of the rest of the story is concerned with palace intrigue involving the maharaja’s three wives.

The story is colourful – with larger than life characters like the preternaturally mature Rama and his half brothers, the evil governess Manthara, the weary king Dasaratha – it has lots of Brahmanic magic going on and some big fight scenes at the end. But it’s also very shallow. The all the good characters are pure in thought a deed, while the bad ones are ugly or corpulent and simplistically single-minded. There is one minor demoness who has a conflict of motivations, but only because she has a crush on the fifteen-year-old protagonist. Rama, his brother Lakshman and Vishwamitra conquer their foes without any real danger to themselves. Well, Lakshman does get killed, but is resurrected at the cost of a soul … conveniently enough, that of the Asura they’re supposed to get rid of.

Ashok K Banker

Worse than all of this, is the language and quality of the writing. It’s weak. It’s laden with lots of Hindu or Sanskrit terms – which isn’t a big problem, as it does lend a lot of authenticity to the text and there’s a moderately helpful glossary at the end. However, these words are used a little too liberally, especially when, for instance, you read a new word – ‘astra’, clearly a weapon of some sort from the context – towards the end of the book and turn to the glossary for an explanation and it just says ‘a weapon’.

The worst flaw of the book, though, is the use of modern idioms in a story set in ancient India. When magical beings transform from one shape to another, they ‘morph’. Rama, right on the very first page of the book, is described as a having ‘tight abs’. On more than one occasion the Vedic unit of measurement, the yojana, is compared to ‘Western’ miles. Perhaps such anachronisms were used to try to appeal to a global mass audience, but they end up making a mockery of the dignity of this ancient tale.

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