The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

The Prague CemeteryThe cover of The Prague Cemetery is peppered with comments praising the book as  ‘magnificent’, ‘chilling’ and ‘extremely readable’. For a story narrated by a forger, it’s hardly necessary to warn the reader to beware. This novel is a huge disappointment.

The Prague Cemetery is the autobiography of a fictional double agent, Simone Simonini. Born in Piedmont in 1830, we follow his life as he becomes a notary and lawyer, all the while secretly operating as a spy and an agent provocateur. Murder and treachery follow close on Simonini’s heels, even after he flees Italy to take up his forgery trade in the backstreets of Paris.

To follow the plot, the reader needs to be aware of the background to the unification of Italy, Victorian Catholicism, as well as the political life of nineteenth century Prussia and France. Otherwise, the novel is pretty much incomprehensible, with many sentences like this:

There was little difference in my view between Péladan’s Rosicrucians and the Vintras sect of which Boullan had become Grand Pontifex, all people who went around in dalmatics covered with cabalistic symbols.

I’ve read the book and I still don’t have a clue what any of that is about.

The novel  does actually have an interesting premise as Eco explores the growth of anti-semitism through the production of fake ‘eyewitness’ reports and manufactured texts. Unfortunately, in this case, the devil is lost in the detail. Despite the fine writing and occasional witty comments, The Prague Cemetery is like a modern academic text on the Vikings: all farming and knitting with the interesting bits taken out.

As a novel, it covers similar themes to other works of Umberto Eco. It examines the truth of historical memory, especially through belief in objects such as holy texts or medieval relics (the subject of his earlier novel Baudolino). The narrator suffers from amnesia and neither we nor he know exactly what has happened in the recent past (as in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona). Finally, it implies that the world is ruled by secretive cults, with special emphasis on the plans of Jesuits and the Masons (also a key plot point in Foucault’s Pendulum).

In spite of those similarities, this is a much weaker, muddle-headed book that brings nothing new to the party. Readers would be better off reading Foucault’s Pendulum, which also has an extremely complicated plot, but is a much more rewarding novel.


20 responses to “The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

  1. I read it myself recently and must agree with your comments, it feels more like it’s an attempt to pull together the threads of earlier books rather than something new, without being as strong as any of them. Recently his academic writing has been better than his fiction.

    I must admit a slight distaste at the fact that there seemed to be no counterpoint to the protagonists antisemitism, previously there’s always been a dissenting voice noting that the narrator (no matter how unreliable) was probably wrong.

    • Completely agree. I also felt that the antisemitism was going on too long without any challenge from anyone. The book is about the origins of hate but it never really reveals anything new. I personally think that if he weren’t such a big name already, this book would never have been translated into English. I love Eco’s other books though.

  2. My review of this one got a one-word heading – ‘Dire’! It led to an…er…animated discussion on Amazon US where some readers (who hadn’t read the book) seemed to feel that anyone who didn’t like it must be anti-semitic. Such fun! Like you, I doubt if this one would have been published had it not been for the author’s reputation.

    • That’s a surprise. I had never heard of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion before reading the novel, so now I do know the roots of nineteenth century European anti-semitism. It amazes me that anyone at the time could have believed that such an obvious racist fantasy could have even a grain of truth to it. Whatever your background, if you don’t know much about nineteenth-century continental politics, this book is incomprehensible!

  3. I’m happy yet surprised that an author as heady as this one is so widely read, but he is just not for me. I have a good friend who is frustrated that I never finished the Name of the Rose, a book he recommended. But I couldn’t fight through page after page of the history of monks, and such. This one sounds like something I shouldn’t even go near.

  4. My god but if that doesn’t sound like a lot of background to have to understand things. I can certainly relate as I’m reading a book now written for laypeople but obviously assuming a knowledge of physics I never happened to pick up along the way.

    The only thing I’ve read of Eco that I liked, and I’ll admit I haven’t read a lot of him, was his History of Beauty. I would like to find a novel though of his to enjoy. Obviously, this isn’t going to be it….

  5. I have yet to read this one, I keep putting it off as it is the one novel of his I haven’t read…I’ve really enjoyed all the rest of his fiction, short stories and non fiction that I have so far read…perhaps it is time I took the plunge after all.

    • Hmm … I wouldn’t put it top of my ‘to read’ list if I were you, especially as you always have no shortage of books waiting for you. You might like it more than me. As I say, there seems to be a big difference in opinion between the bloggers and the “professional” critics.

      • Professional is an interesting word for bunch of people doing favours for each other. it is great that more and more people are turning to the blogosphere after being disappointed by so called professional reviewers, it would keep us in business were we not a free service…perhaps we could get government funding…

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