The Prague Cemetery

Umberto Eco’s new book is a decidedly unpleasant read. That’s not to say it’s a bad book; an unpleasant read can still be interesting and even entertaining. The Prague Cemetery is both of these things, just not quite often enough to suit me.

The source of the novel’s vileness is its main character, Simone Simonini, a forger with absolutely no redeeming characteristics. He makes his living spreading hate against whoever the enemy du jour happens to be. In 19th-century Paris, that means the Jews, the Jesuits, the Masons, and any other convenient scapegoat who comes along. His great work, which he tinkers with throughout the novel, is a made-up account of a cabal of rabbis who meet in a cemetery in Prague to plot the overthrow of the world. This document takes inspiration from several popular novels and, in turn, inspires still others, eventually becoming one of the most influential anti-Semitic documents in modern history.

Eco has stated that all of the characters in this book, aside from Simonini, are actual historical figures, although many (perhaps even most) will not be familiar to the general reader. Eco mines obscure (to me) bits of 19th-century European history and offers up such people as Léo Taxil, Diana Vaughan, and Maurice Joly. From this novel, one would get the impression that Europe at the time was chock-a-block with fraudsters cooking up conspiracies to gain money or power. The history is fascinating, even if the details are overwhelming.

Equally fascinating are the ideas that fuel Eco’s depiction of hate literature. The literature is in many cases written not to put down a particular group but to raise up another. If an entire race gets obliterated in the midst of that pursuit, so be it. A Russian who avails himself of Simonini’s services requests a piece of anti-Semitic literature not because he hates Jews in particular, but because Jews are a convenient object of hate to distract people from rebelling against the tsar. “If I were living in Turkey, I would use the Armenians,” he quips. The important thing is that people have someone else to blame for their troubles. How like much of today’s political discourse this is. Placing blame takes precedence over finding solutions.

In his work, Simonini is not at all interested in truth (although he is an anti-Semite through and through). He deliberately uses Alexandre Dumas’s Joseph Balsamo as inspiration for his confabulations, tweaking the setting and characters to fit his or his clients’ purposes. Almost everyone involved in the creation and dissemination of these documents knows from the get-go that they are false. Even when they try to pretend that the documents have a grain of truth in them, they’ll request revisions and make changes to better suit their ends. Again, just like much modern-day propaganda.

Eco does a wonderful job of showing how these kinds of vile myths develop, and he does so in such a way that we can easily see the parallels to our time. However, the book as a whole is not a success. Once Eco develops these ideas, they don’t go anywhere, and the book becomes monotonous. It’s just one forgery after another, the only difference being the circumstances and the target. Simonini’s great work, which he calls the Protocols, are there in the background, with bits and pieces being shared and changed along the way, but there’s not much sense of narrative momentum. Eco’s research is impressive, but piling all these conspiracies together doesn’t necessarily make for a good story.

What narrative tension there is dwells in Simonini’s own psychological makeup. When the book begins, some years after the main events of the story, Simonini is writing a journal at the suggestion of a certain Austrian psychiatrist. Simonini’s hope is that he can get to the bottom of a series of episodes of lost time he’s been experiencing. Along with the missing days, Simonini has found a priest’s cassock and an apartment connected to his own by a secret passageway. Soon, he starts to find entries in his journal by an Abbé Dalla Piccola who is suffering similar lapses of memory. The journal entries by these two men, supplemented by a third-person account by an unnamed narrator, make up the narrative,  To the reader, it’s obvious what’s going on, and all three narrators speculate about it, but the truth is never made explicit until the end of the book.

I have mixed feelings about this approach. On the one hand, Eco does not take the easy way out and create a clear Jekyll and Hyde tension. Neither Simonini or Piccola is a likable man. But as with the conspiracy theory plot, there’s insufficient narrative momentum. What ought to look like a descent into madness becomes just a series of memory lapses. The conceit is intriguing at the start, but it doesn’t go anywhere until the final chapters of the book.

Although filled with compelling ideas, The Prague Cemetery ultimately falls down under its own weight. For me, the detailed history and the unconventional structure proved to be too much, and the story became too much of a slog. A disappointment.

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24 Responses to The Prague Cemetery

  1. Kathleen says:

    Well I loved The Name of the Rose but this one doesn’t sound like it reaches that level of literary goodness. I will probably still read it since I admired the author’s earlier work and am always curious about how their writing develops throughout their career.

    • Teresa says:

      I haven’t read The Name of the Rose, but I intend to. I liked Foucault’s Pendulum a lot more than I liked this. It was also chock full of detail (sometimes more than was necessary), but it had more of a story.

  2. This one holds no appeal to me what so ever. I do still intend to read something by Eco though.

  3. I actually thought that the book sounded quite interesting, despite not being a pleasant read. But Eco and I aren’t on good terms, I just don’t seem to be able to finish any of his books, they seem just beyond my reach.

    • Teresa says:

      It is interesting, but I didn’t think the interesting parts were worth the slogging through of the rest. If you aren’t already a Eco fan, I’d say it’s one to miss.

  4. I definitely plan to try this one at some point, but am sorry to hear it was flawed.

  5. That’s too bad this book fell short. I loved the Name of the Rose, it was beautifully executed. I’ll probably still give this one a shot because I love Eco but I’ll try not to set my expectations too high.

  6. krismerino says:

    Eco is one of my all time favorites, both his fiction and his work on literary criticism and semiotics. I receive this book tomorrow, and I have to say, I can’t wait to read it. Sorry you’re experience with it fell short of your expectations. I’ll be posting my take on it in the next couple of days (or as long as it takes me to read it).

    • Teresa says:

      I do hope it lives up to your expectations. It might be one of those books that will only appeal to his biggest fans. I’m only a moderate fan, having only read Foucault’s Pendulum (and liking it quite a bit). Although this was something of a disappointment, there were parts of it that I liked, and I’m definitely not giving up on Eco, though,

      • krismerino says:

        Thanks! I hope so, too. So far so good (about 50 or so pages into it). The history is a rich as I’d hoped it be, and so far he hasn’t disappointed with his penchant for playing games with the reader. I’ll know more as I get deeper into it.

        Name of the Rose is beautiful and a wonderful book to start with. Just bear in mind that he crafted the first one-hundred pages to be, well, difficult to get through…he calls them a “penitential obstacle.” He wanted to ensure he had a “model reader.” He writes in Postscript to the Name of the Rose:

        “What model reader did I want as I was writing? An accomplice, to be sure, one who would play my game. … But at the same time, with all my might, I wanted to create a type of reader who, once the initiation was past, would become my prey — or, rather, the prey of the text – and would think he wanted nothing but what the text was offering him.”

        Trust me when I tell you that its well worth it to stick with him.

      • Teresa says:

        Thanks for the heads-up about the first bit of The Name of the Rose. I actually have it on my list to read in January, so I’ll keep that in mind.

  7. Pingback: Like a Child on Christmas Eve | Intelligent Life

  8. rebeccareid says:

    Sounds like my first Eco should NOT be this one. I have Name of the Rose on the shelf….

    • krismerino says:

      The Name of the Rose is a beautiful book, as are Baudolino, The Island of the Day Before, and Foucault’s Pendulum. Whatever you choose to read first, do, since Eco, although he challenges the reader at every turn, he always rewards them for sticking with him. Enjoy!

    • Teresa says:

      I have Name of the Rose on my shelf too, and I’m hoping to read it soonish. A lot of people seem to like it a lot, so I suspect it’s a good one to start with.

  9. Steph says:

    I know Eco is well-loved by many readers, but I can’t consider myself one of them. I picked up The Name of the Rose a few years ago, certain it would titillate and amuse me, but while I enjoyed the first 50 pages or so, it quickly became a slog for me. Tony read Foucault’s Pendulum in its entirety and when he finished it, he felt it had been a waste of his time, so those two experiences made me decide not to spend any more time on Eco. Your review has helped solidify that decision!

    • Teresa says:

      Well, from what Kris says above, your experience of The Name of the Rose may have been Eco’s intention. Now you know you’re not a match :)

      I did like Foucault’s Pendulum, but I had to adopt a mind-set in which I didn’t sweat the details too much and just enjoyed the ride. It didn’t turn out to be my favorite book ever, but I liked it well enough to want to read more.

  10. Stefanie says:

    I like Eco and in spite of the flaws you outline the book still sounds intriguing. I’ll borrow it from the library sometime and not expect it to be brilliant so then I won’t be so very disappointed.

    • Teresa says:

      That sounds like a good plan. I really did find the ideas in the book to be fascinating, and my interest only seriously faltered at about the midpoint, when it got to be too much.

  11. krismerino says:

    Finally finished reading Prague Cemetery and here’s my post about it…

    I really enjoyed it, for the reasons that I always enjoy Eco… the really rich history, the involvement of the reader, and in this case, the heavy social criticism. I found it to be a pretty powerful word of caution for today’s society…

    • Teresa says:

      Glad you enjoyed it! I’ll go take a look at your post now. I totally agree that there are some good words of caution there. It’s so, so easy to use people’s biases to gain power, and this novel shows just how it’s done.

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