The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

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The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Conspiracy theories, anti-semitism and general cynicism tie together one man's control over the course of 19th century European history. Scarcely plausible and only mildy entertaining.
Buy? No Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 440 Date: July 2012
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099555971

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If the popular press is to be believed, then those of us who write book reviews do so to show off our own (non-existent) talents as writers whilst trying to condemn the abilities of far greater worth.

Well, not quite.

I would not pretend to have a tiny iota-fragment of the talent that Umberto Eco has. Nor would I seek to decry his latest opus.

On the other hand, I am an ordinary reader – one moreover that enjoyed The Name of the Rose immensely – and I really struggled with The Prague Cemetery. I didn't struggle to get through it. It is actually quite an easy read, if you just read the surface of it. I did struggle to see the point of it. It may well just be me. I put my hands up.

On the other hand: read the author's afterward. The Narrator is aware that, in the fairly chaotic plot sequence of the diaries reproduced here (moving back and forth, using what cineastes call flashbacks), the reader might have difficulty in following the linear progression of Simonini's birth to the end of his diaries. It is the fatal imbalance between story and plot...[but] a competent reader need not become lost in the detail and should enjoy the story just the same.

I tried. I really did.

I failed.

Despite the admonition, it isn't the diary structure or the flashbacks that cause the problem. Indeed the competent reader is well-versed in dealing with these. The problem for me is that it was more like reading a writing exercise than a novel. I'm old-fashioned: I want a novel to entertain me as it educates or provokes me. This one didn't.

According to the blurb, in late 19th century Europe everyone was plotting against every one else: Jesuits, Protestants, Jews, the Papacy, the students, the legislators. Everyone has an axe to grind. And the whetstone they all use is Simone Simini.

He is a shadowy figure at the start of the novel: a man who wakes up one morning unsure of who he is; a man who shares an interlinked abode with an equally mysterious priest. To regain his sense of self, or part of his lost memories, he starts to write and it is through his diaires and recollections that we learn his past. The priest feels the need to interject now and then. And when Eco finds that the format he has chosen will be just too tedious for the reader he has a Narrator summarise for us.

Simoni is an unsympathetic antihero. He hates a lot of people. Not individual people you understand, entire races and classes and professions. Jews, to start with, but soon also Spaniards, Coats, Levantines, Maltese, Englishmen, Kalmuckjm Prussian. Germans (or Austrians it's all the same), Frenchmen… if I have become French it's because I couldn't bear being Italian and this is just the start. Gradually we see where some of his prejudices come from, but none are really justified.

By trade Simoni is a lawyer. He is the kind of lawyer who reconstructs original documents that surely must at one time have existed in order to prove the will that clearly was intended. It isn't forgery, merely a means of providing evidence to prove what is self-evidently the case. Of course a natural-born ability to copy any handwriting and linguistic style upon request is just a skill like any other, albeit one that draws him into many and varied schemes at the behest of individuals or secret institutions (of states or other bodies) that spread to affect the course of European history.

A mere sample of his exploits include joining Alexandre Dumas and Garibaldi in Italy's search for independence from Austria, surreptitious rabble rousing in the Paris Commune, a key role in the Dreyfus affair. Meanwhile, he's learning from Sigmund Freud and getting heavily involved in the Palladist scandals of Leo Taxil and Diana Vaughan.

The level of historical detail is one of the things that might faze some general readers. A further Author's note indicates that most of the characters are genuine historical figures, many of them are recognisable by their real names, or by facsimiles of their true identities. Eco has somehow managed to shoe-horn in anyone of any significance for the whole sweeping timescale of the novel. Great, if you know your history in infinite depth. If you don't, more a distraction of the is it or isn't it real? dilemma.

This average reader doesn't know her European history well enough for that period to sift the fact from the fiction – and the fact of so much fact really got in the way.

The Prague Cemetery of the title is the genuine Jewish burial in the city, well evinced in Eco's descriptions from my recollection of how it stood at the end of the twentieth century. Had it changed much in the previous hundred years? I've no idea. For Eco's purposes it provides a gothic backdrop for a cabal (or coven) of Rabbis plotting to take over the world. The story reappears several times, embellished and re-written and stolen and reworked, depending upon the purpose it's required to serve.

Anti-semitism, fear of the Freemasons, and the overarching conspiracy are the themes that seek to hold the ramble together.

It is a ramble. Treat it that way and you might enjoy it. It is also a literary exercise: the ultimate construction of a conspiracy theory that can lay the whole of a continent's history for the lifetime of its protagonist and through the onward ripples a century or so afterwards at the feet of one man. Presumably to make the point that conspiracy theories are absurd.

Eco has said that it is a riposte to those who take Dan Brown seriously. Fair enough. But I don't think DB meant to be taken seriously. The Independent called The Prague Cemetery a smartly entertaining fin-de-siècle romp Not for me. Brown's work is a romp: a silly escapade. Eco's is a serious attempt to expose the nature of conspiracy theorists. It is very clever, and if you don't mind your wit on the caustic side women may be capable of multiplication there are occasional wry smiles to be had. But by no stretch of the imagination is it a romp.

My final problem with the work is that it breaks what we (who cannot write) are always being told is the cardinal rule for fiction: show don't tell. The whole story is told. Explained. I did this. They said that. This happened next. There is very little dialogue and absolutely no getting under the skin or into the minds of any of the characters. Long descriptions of what they ate and pen-&-ink illustrations straight out of a Dickensian work simply don't make up for understanding what they felt, how they spoke, in a word action.

The Prague Cemetery is a worldwide bestseller, topping the charts in Italy, Spain, Argentina, Mexico and elsewhere. It has sold millions of copies. So, like I say, I could be wrong, but it doesn't get a recommendation from me.

If conspiracy theories are your thing you could probably do far worse than to check out Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped The World by David Aaronovitch

Buy The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco at

Buy The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco at


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