A tale of two conspirators: Simonini and Degaev

I just wrote a review of Umberto Eco’s The Prague Cemetery and one area that I thought could have been (but wasn’t) most interesting in the book was the constant interplay between fiction and fact, with secret services paying informants for documents copied from the pages of novels to capture conspirators likewise acting out the role of heroes from their favorite books. In Eco’s case, this theme was a missed opportunity, but there was another book I wrote about not long ago that covers virtually identical ground.

The Degaev Affair” by Richard Pipes also happens to be the story of a wayward young man with a less than iron will who stumbles into the world of conspiracy, double-dealing, murder, plots (both real and invented) along with fabricated enemies all at the disposal of the Tsar’s secret service, the Okhrana. It is also the story of police chiefs and their informers as influenced and carried away by the novels they have read as any Emma Bovary, if not quite Don Quixote.

When the head of the Okhrana concocts a plot to send Sergei Degaev to trap exiled Russian revolutionaries he draws it out of Dumas’ sequel to The Three Musketeers, the same novelist whose works are practically the touchstone for the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Eco’s novel, while the inspiration behind his joining the Tsar’s service wasn’t any patriotic screed but the detective novels of Frenchman Emile Gaboriau.

And while Eco constructs virtually all of his story, with the exception of his main character, from historical evidence “The Degaev Affair” is the real thing – a work of non-fiction. In adhering to the facts Pipes is left with much less material and a much slimmer work. At the same time his book is the dramatic, imaginative one, while Eco’s often seems encyclopedic in the worst sense of the word.

And I wondered whether Eco might have realized at a certain point that though he had a fascinating subject he wasn’t up to writing a novel about it, but might have done better to turn it into a shorter non-fiction book or series of essays. That he didn’t reminded me of a moment in “The Prague Cemetery” where Simonini realizes that instead of selling small snippets of information to the secret service he should sell them a whole document, in the manner of Sue or Dumas.

I don’t think that a novelist couldn’t necessarily write a great book on the subject (or one of the many subjects Eco touched on in his book) but the reality was so bizarre that it would take something special to outdo a recounting of the facts. Another non-fiction book that dealt with some of the same figures was Alex Butterworth’s 2010 The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists and Secret Agents.

Photo – 1) Group photo of the St. Petersburg Okhrana, 1905 2) Pyotr Rachovsky, head of the Okhrana, who appears in “The Prague Cemetery,” having played a major part in the Protocols among other infamies, and is a focus of Butterworth’s book 3) Georgy Porfiryevich Sudeikin, head of all secret agents for the Okhrana until . . oh, not telling – just read “The Degaev Affair.”

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Categories: Books


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