The 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.