Thursday, July 28, 2016

Umberto Eco’s Prague Cemetery


Savored Words: Conspiracy Edition!

One thing you should be prepared for when reading Umberto Eco is the density of the work: the historical references, the fact that the story is so carefully wrought—after all, as an academic, Professor Eco’s specialty is semiotics, the philosophical study of signs and symbols. Closely related to linguistics, the field delves into meanings and relationships, and Eco’s work is often fraught with secret societies, conspiracies, and the complex web of history.

The Prague Cemetery opens with a long rant of prejudices by Simone Simonini, a forger, murderer, and here, the originator of the Protocols of Elders of Zion, the notorious fake text that fueled 19th-century anti-Semitism and was in part responsible for inspiring Hitler’s terrible plans. Though I enjoyed seeing Eco’s process for creating this elaborate conspiracy of Freemasons, Satanists, and political and religious machinations, the book didn’t capture my imagination the same way Focault’s Pendulum did. The divergent narrative voices, while showing the events from a variety of angles, were hard to pull together as the arc of the story developed.

I greatly appreciated his approach to the novel, however. I too love to find real people in history, do tons of research, and take a long time outline and write a book. In an interview with the Paris Review, he talked about the challenges of writing this novel. The subject matter was difficult, he said: “With this novel, the material I was dealing with was so ugly that I felt a lot of embarrassment. I had to create an absolutely ugly character, a repugnant character, which can certainly be a challenge for a writer. Fortunately some of my colleagues had done the same. Shakespeare for instance, with Richard III.”

I wondered the same as I wrote Whiskey and Rue. Dealing with domestic abuse, mental illness, and an abortion forced on a woman who didn’t want one made me want to abandon it more than once. But the story itself and the characters were too powerful to abandon. Like the dean I worked for as a teaching assistant often said, art is a medium to make us confront difficult issues—ones that humanity needs to face and remember to strive for the better.

One aspect of The Prague Cemetery that took me pleasantly off-guard was the description of food. Simonini is very fond of his food. Each ingredient is listed, and each step of the cooking process, are outlined. I wanted to write about several, but one favorite I know stood out: bagna caöda (a.k.a. cauda, or calda). A delightful blend of garlic, anchovies, and butter cooked in a small terracotta pot, it’s the best hot bread dip you’ll ever have. And it’s also served with vegetables. Simonini lists cardoons soaked in cold water and lemon juice, peppers, Savoy cabbage, potatoes, or carrots. Anything, really! Below is a recipe I adapted long ago. Make the recipe, and read the rest of the Paris Review article about Umberto Eco, and enjoy!


Bagna Caöda
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup butter
1 to 1 and 1/2 cups peeled garlic cloves (depends on how big a fan of garlic you are!)
1 2 oz. jar of anchovies, chopped (the nice glass jarred version is better than canned, but canned can certainly be used)
1 pinch Aleppo pepper
1 pinch Italian seasoning, like Penzey’s Tuscan Sunset

  •        Preheat oven to 275 Fahrenheit.
  •        Mix all ingredients in small casserole dish.
  •       Let simmer, covered, in oven between and hour and hour and a half.
  •        Serve with bread and vegetables. 


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