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Review of ‘The Prague Cemetery’ by Umberto Eco

November 26, 2012 1 comment

The Prague Cemetery’ by Umberto Eco, translated by Richard Dixon

Published by Vintage Books

ISBN 9780099555971

Reviewed by C P Howe

Take the fragmented and volatile nature of 19th century European history, mix in a grand cast of real people, show how well read you are by referring to a wide range of real and fictional writing, and invent a thoroughly dislikeable anti-hero to tie it all together. The result is Umberto Eco’s sixth novel, The Prague Cemetery, a book full of intrigue, deception and betrayal, which goes back to the familiar ground of Foucault’s Pendulum and The Name of the Rose.

Eco’s academic credentials include philosophy, semiotics, literary criticism and media and communications. Fifty years ago he first published his ideas on ‘open’ and ‘closed’ texts, and in his novels it seems he has pushed these ideas through into practice. The Prague Cemetery certainly requires the reader to engage, and engage deeply, questioning what is being reported on the page, and by whom. To add to the complexity, readers also need to remember that this is a translation from Italian into English. That such a complex and dynamic piece of writing should retain its integrity after such a process is remarkable.

It is also clear that Eco really meant what he said in an interview with the Guardian in 2011; ‘People are tired of simple things; they want to be challenged.’  Not only does The Prague Cemetery require nothing short of your full attention, moving as it does between a narrator – we are supposed to think this is Eco himself, perhaps – the journal entries of Simone Simonini, and notes made by Simonini’s alter ego, Abbe Dalla Piccola. It also assumes the reader has a very high level of trust in the narrator, whether it is Eco, Simonini, or Dalla Piccola, to recount in great detail the complex shifts in power in 19th century European politics. Eco knows it is unlikely many readers will be as well read on this subject as he is, and spares us no detail.

But he is not just doing this to show off. Simonini is a forger, used by more than one government, or would be government, to supply ‘genuine’ documents to the other side. Who is on the other side, and who is on his side, it is hard to say. Simonini is an unreliable narrator, and it is mostly his account of his life, written nearly thirty years after the events themselves, that we are reading. We cannot be sure that anything he tells us is true. At best it is just a version – his version – of the truth. Add in the brief notes by Dalla Piccola and the interjections by the narrator and we see the world as Eco wants us to see it – complex, confusing and where we can’t know everyone’s true intentions and motivations. Just like real life.

Eco has included monochrome images of supposed engravings of the events Simonini writes about, showing us that Simonini is in fact writing a journal for publication. He is, we are supposed to believe, finally writing down the truth about his colourful life, and the role he played in producing The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an account of a meeting of Jewish elders in a cemetery in Prague. The Protocols exist, and are widely held to be a hoax. That did not stop them being used by the Russians and the Nazis, and even today there are claims that they are genuine.

Eco threads layer upon layer of fiction, fact, history and humour throughout this novel. Those who are not experts in this period of European history may find the detail distracting or annoying. I’d recommend setting aside your concerns; don’t try and remember all the characters and who they are aligned with. Never heard of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies? Don’t worry about it. Not sure who Garibaldi was? Never mind. Unclear about the sequence of events with the Prussians, Bonaparte and the French Revolution? Let it go. No-one really knows all the details. Simonini certainly doesn’t, and you shouldn’t try. There are plenty of other books you can read if you’re interested.

Instead, read The Prague Cemetery for what it is: a rollicking tale of a thoroughly unlikeable, anti-Semitic, food-obsessed murderer, at the heart of deception after deception that shaped the course of European history at the time and – in the case of the forgery that sits at the centre of the book, the Protocols – decades to come. For Europeans, especially continental Europeans, the events in this book were not that long ago. They are, still, fresh in the memory. France and Italy are proud republics with volatile political environments. In that sense, they are still very much the countries described in The Prague Cemetery. And this is a serious business; the Protocols were used by the Nazis, in part, to justify the Holocaust.

The Prague Cemetery won’t be to everyone’s taste. Simonini is a nasty piece of work, but unlike most anti-heroes it’s hard to ever feel any sympathy or empathy for him. The historical details can be exhausting. And while we know its Simonini, not Eco, being anti-Semitic, the thoughts Eco puts in Simonini’s head, and the words he puts in his mouth, are disturbing.

If you want a story about conspiracies, European history and deception where you know who the villain is because he’s an creepy looking albino priest who tortures himself, where the world is threatened and saved at the last minute, and where the hero is an American and gets the girl, Dan Brown’s the author for you. For everyone else, there’s Umberto Eco.

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Review of ‘The Phoenix Song’ by John Sinclair

November 1, 2012 1 comment

‘The Phoenix Song’ by John Sinclair

Published by Victoria University Press, October 2012

ISBN 978 0 86473 825 7

Reviewed by C P Howe

Acknowledgement: The review copy of The Phoenix Song was provided by Booksellers New Zealand. This review was first published on their blog.

John Sinclair, with his first novel The Phoenix Song, has created something of a challenge for readers. The story is densely packed with the history of relations between Russia and China and at times this can be overwhelming. He also introduces just enough authentically named Chinese and Russian characters to make it difficult, but not impossible, to remember who they are. We are helped by his decision to include a contents page and chapter headings to signpost some of the shifts in time and place. I had the feeling he could have made it even more complex, and the novel he has given us is a judgement call. It already takes a dedicated reader to commit the concentration required; if he had gone any further he might have lost us all.

The commitment and concentration required to get to grips with The Phoenix Song, however, certainly has its rewards.  Told through a first person narration by Xiao Magou, starting in 1950, a year after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China when she was eight years old, the story reveals remarkable aspects of life in the young nation. With a father who is a party official, the young Xiao’s musical talent is quickly recognised and cultivated, but ever present throughout her story is the all embracing power of the party and the extreme control it exercised over the population. Entangled in Xiao’s story is the complexity of Chinese-Russian relations, with secretive negotiations about treaties and personal relationships; the Russians feature heavily in Xiao’s early life, and her parents’, as well as at the Shanghai Conservatory where she studies violin.

The book does have its lighter moments, usually when the Russians are involved. Sinclair has great technical control of the words on the page, and effortlessly moves into dialogue and flashback when relating events that Xiao witnesses, as well as stories she hears from her mother, or imagines when looking at photographs. Some of the exchanges between the Russians at the Shanghai Conservatory are, while not exactly laugh out loud, highly amusing.

There’s a darker side to the humour as well. Some of the decisions by the Party in relation to musical development in China would be, if they weren’t true, laughable. The demands on citizens to be productive, to labour, in culture as well as the fields and factories, seem absurd to our modern day understanding of creativity. The idea of quotas for symphonies and songs, as if they were tonnes of pig iron, is remarkable. The arbitrary decisions on which western composers are suddenly in favour, and those that are to be discarded, are equally astounding. When students at the Conservatory have to suspend their studies for days just to attack Debussy and his work, to burn his scores, we’d like to think it is purely fiction, but we know it isn’t; Sinclair has done his homework.

The story has an arc which is relatively predictable. Sinclair is a New Zealand writer, and the book is published by Victoria University Press. The promotional paragraph on the cover tells the story moves between China, Europe and New Zealand. It doesn’t take much thinking to work out what is going to happen, especially when Sinclair drops in the occasional paragraph to make sure we know Xiao is telling the story from a point a long way into the future. Nevertheless, the way he weaves together the events is skilful and accomplished, and creating a consistent and convincing voice on the page for a young Chinese girl in the 1950s is quite an achievement.

Sinclair has produced an interesting and technically accomplished novel, but it didn’t engage me quite as much as I’d hoped. Using the first person to relate a mostly chronological story means sometimes the narrative drags. Xiao consistently relates details of what she sees in a colourful way, painting a picture of her surroundings for the reader, but its does tend to slow things down. There are moments of excitement and tragedy, but Xiao is emotionally cold. There’s a reason for this, but I had hoped to see more of her feelings.

The Phoenix Song is a book about a world so different to ours it demands to be read. Music and freedom (or its absence) are its themes, and it reveals frightening truths about the role these played in determining the future of twentieth century society. Xiao’s young life touches decisions and people – Mao Zedong, Deng Xiao Ping, Khrushchev – at the highest level of geopolitics. It might not be as emotionally engaging as I had hoped, but it is certainly a book worth reading. Whether John Sinclair is contemplating writing a second volume of Xiao’s story I don’t know – it will be obvious what this should cover once you’ve read The Phoenix Song – but I would certainly be near the front of the queue if he does.

The Phoenix Song in the window of Unity Books, Wellington

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